Super Charged: Trans-Tasman rivalry continues with Richie Mo’unga set to shine

Dylan Coetzee

Ahead of the Super Rugby Pacific Round 12, Planet Rugby previews the biggest talking points ahead of the action.

Games to watch

Blues v Rebels

Super Rugby Pacific’s top-placed side take on the resurgent Rebels, who have recently found their footing in the competition to sit in eighth on the table.

The Blues will be without star playmaker Beauden Barrett who has been in scintillating form. Still, utility back Stephen Perofeta comes into the role offering different attributes that can be as dangerous as times.

Captain Dalton Papalii is playing tremendously well and has proved week in and week out this season
that he embraces the responsibility of leadership, and no doubt it has grown him as a player. Akira Ioane made a good return from injury last week and will look to continue trending upwards to complement the mobile pack coach Leon MacDonald has at his disposal.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Rieko Ioane pair up in the midfield in a partnership waiting to blossom. Tuivasa-Sheck has begun finding his feet in rugby union after switching from rugby league.

The Rebels have finally found some synergy in their play, their set-piece has significantly improved, and their game awareness has sharpened up.

The Melbourne side will be without their captain Michael Wells who has been magnificent in leading by example and his absence will be a significant loss during this encounter.

Wallaby scrum-half Joe Powell gets a start, and he will be looking to find a way to hold onto that starting spot with a good performance.

In a surprising move, Rebels head coach Kevin Foote dropped prop Cabous Eloff, who has been in excellent form both as a try-scorer and at scrum time.

The Blues are riding high and have played some beautiful rugby throughout the competition to date and will be happy to be back in Auckland with an opportunity to continue dictating terms.

The Rebels’ improved form may not prove enough to win in New Zealand.

Chiefs v Brumbies

The fourth-placed Chiefs welcome the second-placed Brumbies to Waikato this weekend.

The home side has been in great form, taking a clean sweep of wins in Australia and will be looking to continue their success against Australian sides. However, it will be challenging against a Brumbies side that seems to be going from strength to strength.

The Chiefs’ pack is very settled and welcomes the return of captain Sam Cane who will only add to the solidity of the group. Expect their mobile forwards to set a good platform for the backline to run on, as they have done for the last month.

Number eight, Pita Gus Sowakula, has shown remarkable consistency in his form and work rate this season. Sowakula is dynamic and energetic, adding massive value to the Chiefs forwards at the moment.

The form of fly-half Bryn Gatland has been solid, and the playmaker has done well to combine with the players outside of him with the help of All Black centre Quinn Tupaea.

Jonah Lowe scored four tries against the Waratahs, and the Brumbies should not underestimate his threat on attack.

Meanwhile, the Brumbies have been claiming scalp after scalp as the team seems to have hit their straps and streamlined their processes.

Experience and power has been core to the success of the Brumbies’ pack which is littered with Wallabies in James Slipper, Folau Fainga’a, Rob Valentini and Pete Samu.

Scrum-half and captain Nic White has been a commanding general, and that has had a positive knock-on effect for young playmaker Noah Lolesio, who has done an excellent job in connecting the dots for his outside players.

Out wide, flyer Tom Wright leads the try-scorers list in Super Rugby Pacific with seven scores, and he will be looking to add to his tally in a fast, open game in Hamilton.

Home advantage will be a factor for the Chiefs looking to claim points from the best-placed Australian side, but the form of the Brumbies will carry the Australians into the clash.

It is tricky one to call, but it is set up for a hum-dinger in Waikato.

Player to watch – Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders)

Mo’unga is easily one of the most glittering Super Rugby players of recent times, with back-to-back Super Rugby player of the year awards in New Zealand in 2020 and 2021.

The fly-half has supreme playmaking ability, so much so that he forced Beauden Barrett to move to full-back for the All Blacks to accommodate him. There is a very calm nature about Mo’unga, who always seems to have more time than other players on the ball, and he uses this to manage the game magnificently.

Whether kicking, passing or taking the ball to the line, there is always a risk for defensive lines and defensive positioning when Mo’unga is on the attack. There is no questioning any facet of his skill-set.

The Crusaders are going through a rough patch by their standards, and the now experienced Mo’unga will need to step up and pull the strings. A clash against the Western Force is an ideal opportunity for the team to find their feet, and with the 27-year-old back in the side, it is more likely they will.

Expect Mo’unga to be in complete control of the game both on attack and over the game’s pace. His overall skill-set and game awareness should be enough to take his team over the line. The magician will be looking to grab hold of the game from the outset.

One-v-one battle to watch – Aaron Smith (Highlanders) v Tate McDermott(Reds)

Highlanders captain Aaron Smith helped his side to a narrow win over the Fijian Drua in Suva last time out and will be looking to bag another win against the Reds this weekend. The Highlanders’ start to the season has been shocking, winning only two games from 10.

Smith’s attributes as a player have never been in question, a bullet pass, excellent all-around kicking game and commanding in his decision making. However, his team now relies on more than just his skill-set. Smith needs to stand up as a leader and inspire his team-mates. The Highlanders are not in a great place, and captain Smith needs to extract the most out of his players and structures.

Smith is by no means a bad leader, but right now his team needs him to be a great leader.

Meanwhile, although he was sidelined for part of the campaign, Reds scrum-half and captain Tate McDermott has enjoyed a decent start to the leadership role. McDermott has grown with the captaincy. The buy-in to him as the leader is evident on the field.

As a player, McDermott is a brilliant scrum-half with all the relevant attributes. However, his kicking will need to be on song to keep any counter-attacking Highlanders at bay and to offer continuous support for fly-half Lawson Creighton, who benefits from partnering with McDermott.

It is the battle of the captains, the generals. One captain is looking to inspire and push his side, while the other is looking to continue growing in his role.

Subplot to watch – Australian teams facing New Zealand counterparts away from home

Australian sides have shown their worth against New Zealand opposition this season and have won three of 11 games played. That may not make for good reading but is an improvement on previous years.

However, crossing the Tasman to play in New Zealand is a different task to tackle. Australian teams have sharpened up their set-piece and have done well to match the speed at which their counterparts play, with the Brumbies, in particular, looking like a team going from strength to strength.

The alarm bells are going off in New Zealand over the state of rugby in the country, Australian sides have a golden opportunity to compound the situation and continue to measure themselves to their trans-Tasman rivals – that has become the benchmark for performances in Super Rugby in recent times.

It sets up another intriguing turn in this year’s Super Rugby Pacific. However, despite the rise in the Australian performance, they will still be up against it in the land of the long white cloud.

READ MORE: All Blacks: New Zealand rugby is ‘going backwards