Super charged: Aaron Smith is back, battle of the speedsters and big games in Lautoka and Canberra
Making its return, we bring you Super charged, in which we preview the main talking points ahead of the next round of Super Rugby Pacific action.
Games to watch
Fijian Drua v Crusaders
Super Rugby Pacific will make its first appearance in Fiji for this year and there is an air of excitement ahead of the match in Lautoka between the Drua and the defending champions.
There is little separating these teams on the table as both sides have a record of won one and lost one after two rounds of matches played.
The Crusaders are currently in seventh position with five points amassed while the Drua are one spot below them and a point adrift in the standings. After a rare slow start to the tournament – in which they suffered a shock 31-10 defeat against the Chiefs in their season opener – the men from Christchurch bounced back with an impressive 52-15 triumph over the Highlanders last weekend.
Meanwhile, the Drua got their campaign off to an exciting start when they clinched a thrilling 36-34 victory over Moana Pasifika and although they were competitive for long periods of their next match against the Waratahs, they ran out of steam during that fixture’s latter stages and eventually suffered a 46-17 defeat.
With the Drua showing signs of improvement in their second year of Super Rugby, they will be determined to put in another competitive performance in front of their home fans.
However, this will not be an easy assignment as the Crusaders aren’t the most successful team in this competition’s history for nothing and the previous encounter between these teams was a one-sided affair in Christchurch last year.
Brumbies v Reds
There is always plenty of interest in this fixture as it pits two of Australia’s traditional heavyweights against each other and both teams head into Saturday’s encounter in Canberra in a confident mood.
Despite having a new head coach in Stephen Larkham, who replaced Dan McKellar at the start of the season, it’s been business as usual for the Brumbies as they are once again amongst the tournament’s front-runners.
They are currently in third position on the table after notching impressive victories over the Waratahs and Blues in their opening matches in the competition.
Their win over the Sydneysiders was a good one as it was achieved on their Australian rivals’ home turf and their triumph over the Blues was also significant as they gained revenge on their opponents after last year’s narrow semi-final defeat in Auckland.
Meanwhile, the Reds made a forgetful start to the tournament – with an underwhelming performance en route to a 47-13 loss to the Hurricanes – but they bounced back in style with an emphatic 71-20 thrashing of the Western Force in the tournament’s Super Round in Melbourne.
That result saw the Reds’ amassing their biggest score in Super Rugby history and has moved them up to sixth spot on the table. They are obviously preparing for a tougher assignment against the Canberra-based side, although the men from Brisbane will gain confidence from their previous clash against the Brumbies.
Player to watch – Aaron Smith (Highlanders)
After conceding more that 50 points in their previous two matches against the Blues and Crusaders, the Highlanders will be hoping that Smith‘s first match of the season – against the Chiefs in Hamilton – will coincide with a change in their fortunes.
The veteran All Blacks scrum-half was on an extended pre-season break and will have to hit the ground running against their opponents, who are sitting pretty at the top of the standings after notching back-to-back bonus-point victories against Moana Pasifika and the Crusaders in their opening matches.
🔙 Aaron Smith, you beauty! This try is definitely our favourite from the @Highlanders in 2020!
With one week until kick off in 2021, catch every Highlanders try from last year ➡️ https://t.co/O1wt5oHJAD#SkySuperRugbyAotearoa pic.twitter.com/OrifPS2mfN
— Super Rugby NZ (@SuperRugbyNZ) February 18, 2021
As the Highlanders’ most-capped player, Smith is of course one of the legends of the game, who has delivered sterling service for the Dunedin-based franchise since making his Super Rugby debut in 2011.
His experience, excellent leadership qualities and brilliant distribution skills – especially his slick service to his outside backs – were missed in those defeats to the Blues and the Crusaders, and his presence against the Chiefs will be a shot in the arm for the Highlanders.
One-v-one battle to watch – Monty Ioane (Rebels) v Mark Nawaqanitawase (Waratahs)
All eyes will be on the battle between these two international speedsters when the Rebels and Waratahs face off in their Australian derby in Melbourne on Friday.
Although the Rebels will be the more desperate of these sides – after losing both of their previous matches – they will be quietly confident ahead of this fixture as they suffered narrow losses against the Western Force and Hurricanes.
And Ioane will be a key factor in their attacking onslaught as the 28-year-old has shone with ball in hand since returning to his country of birth after shining in the Test arena for Italy from 2020 to 2022.
The 28-year-old has not crossed the whitewash for the Rebels yet but has proved to be a handful on attack as he gained 66 metres in their opener against the Western Force and 98 metres in their next match against the Hurricanes.
However, he is up against a tough competitor in young Wallaby Nawaqanitawase, who, after a quiet start in the Waratahs’ Round One defeat to the Brumbies – in which he only gained 24 metres – came alive in their win over the Drua as he made 110 metres on attack and scored a well taken try.
Both Ioane and Nawaqanitawase have the ability to change the course of a match with their brilliant attacking abilities and should play crucial roles for their respective teams.
Waratahs’ Mark Nawaqanitawase shows his Aussie Rules skills with a huge over head grab!#SuperRugbyTT #WARvCHI pic.twitter.com/DGGJjZqXvw
— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) June 15, 2021
Subplot to watch – Hurricanes’ response to Ardie Savea’s absence
The biggest talking point in Super Rugby Pacific over the past week was the Hurricanes skipper’s throat-slitting gesture during their narrow victory over the Rebels.
The All Blacks back-row hit the headlines for that incident but apologised for his actions immediately after the match, although it did not save him from being suspended for Saturday’s highly anticipated New Zealand derby against the Blues in Wellington.
Savea brings star quality to any team which he plays for and apart from that indiscretion against the Rebels, he played a big part in the Hurricanes’ triumph as he came to the fore with an excellent performance which was rewarded with a brace of tries.
His absence leaves a void in the Hurricanes’ line-up and it will be interesting to see how they react against the Blues. The men from Wellington are currently in second position in the standings – just a point adrift of the Chiefs – after beating the Reds and Rebels.
With Savea suspended, the responsibility of filling his sizeable shoes has been given to New Zealand U20 international Peter Lakai, while Dane Coles will take over the captaincy. Although Coles is no stranger to the leadership role, there will be plenty of pressure on Lakai, who made his debut against the Reds, and he can expect a baptism of fire against the men from Auckland.
Best of the rest
The weekend’s only other match will see the Western Force and Moana Pasifika doing battle in what promises to be an entertaining clash in Perth.
The Force made a good start to their campaign when they sealed a hard-fought win over the Rebels in Round One, but came crashing down to earth when they suffered that humiliating defeat to the Reds last weekend.
They will fancy their chances of returning to winning ways at home against Moana, who are still winless after losing their previous games against the Drua and Chiefs.
READ MORE: Scott Barrett: All Blacks utility forward signs new Crusaders and New Zealand Rugby deal