As the COVID-19 lock-down continues, the resumption of Super Rugby is on shaky ground.
Rugby administrators will be desperate to find a feasible solution that allows professional rugby to resume across the SANZAAR nations, when the all-clear is given.
With the enforced break, here are some awards based on what has happened so far in 2020 with the New Zealand conference.
Most improved team: Blues
The coronavirus break has come at an inopportune time for the Auckland-based franchise. The Blues sit second on the New Zealand conference ladder with five wins from seven games. A four-game winning streak, including two wins in South Africa and a rare away win to the Hurricanes, show this team is building a solid foundation to target the playoffs.
Captain Patrick Tuipulotu is thriving with the leadership. His go-forward and physical presence in general play helps set the tone each game. Blindside flanker Tom Robinson has shown no sign of second-year syndrome with his huge work rate including an 89 per cent tackle success rate. He will be in the All Blacks’ selection discussions. Prop Karl Tu’inukuafe has stabilised the scrum and is the form prop in New Zealand. He is averaging just under 60 minutes a game, which by modern prop standards is a good effort.
Flyhalf Otere Black has been a steadying influence with his controlled kicking game and accurate decision-making. His temperament allows the talented back line that includes Rieko Ioane and Englishman Joe Marchant to play their natural way. With Beauden Barrett waiting to return from sabbatical, coach Leon MacDonald faces a dilemma on where to play the marquee signing with Black directing the back line well so far.
Best team: Crusaders
The defending champions are first on the New Zealand conference ladder. Despite a narrow loss to the Chiefs, they have gone about their business as usual and lifting a gear when required to get away on the opposition.
The loss of stalwarts such as Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty and Matt Todd has seen new captain Scott Barrett lift his game to another level and lead a young team by example. He is balancing the grunt work as a lock in the tight play with some of his trademark ball-handling skills.
Midfield combination Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor have proven hard to contain. Goodhue’s offloading game (11 offloads, second in the competition) is freeing up the speedy Ennor as well as outside backs like George Bridge and Sevu Reece to make breaks in open space.
Young loose forwards Tom Christie and Cullen Grace straight from the Crusaders’ production line have stood out with their big engines. Christie has made the most tackles in the competition with 105. The former New Zealand under-20 captain is rugged and has a large involvement in all games he plays. Grace is a blindside flanker with an immense work rate, which included making 17 tackles in his debut match against the Blues in Round 3. Grace is contributing on attack with four try assists to his name.
The Crusaders have looked dangerous so far in 2020 and by their own high standards would say they should have scored more points after creating ample opportunities.
Best rookie: Mark Telea (Blues)
Telea has been in electric form in his first full season of Super Rugby. He has scored five tries (equal second in the competition). Opposition defences are struggling to contain the rookie winger. He has beaten 54 defenders (first) and made 14 line breaks (equal second). His speed and evasion from tacklers make him an exciting prospect for whatever rugby he plays for the remainder of 2020.
Best back: David Havili (Crusaders)
Havili’s season was cut short before the COVID-19 break due to a bowel operation. In only four games the versatile back showed his class and was in the type of form that warrants being re-selected for the All Blacks since debuting in 2017. He was beating defenders with ease and was always threatening when he had the ball in his hands.
He is the competition’s leading offloader with 14 and third equal with tackle busts with 21. The Tasman player relishes being in the Crusaders system as he can play with natural freedom balanced with clinical rugby. Havili is tasting success regularly with three consecutive Super Rugby titles as well as captaining the Tasman Mako win in the 2019 New Zealand domestic competition.
Best forward and MVP: Lachlan Boshier (Chiefs)
Boshier has been involved in many crucial moments this season, which has usually seen him make a crucial turnover or win a penalty in the pressure stages of a game. The Chiefs flanker has thrived playing on the blindside flank, forming a strong combination with Sam Cane.
After a number of seasons with limited game time, Boshier is leading the competition with 17 turnovers and has a tackle success rate of 90 per cent. The 25-year-old has put himself right in the All Blacks conversation with his ability to contest the breakdown at important stages of a game.
Boshier was missed when the Chiefs were outplayed by the Brumbies in Round 4. He will be desperate for any form of rugby competition to resume to continue his impressive start to the season.
Whether Super Rugby resumes is unknown. For all rugby fans, we want some form of competition to take place once the lock-down period and travel restrictions are lifted. The New Zealand conference is more hotly contested now that the Blues have been resurgent. A number of individuals have made the most of their opportunities and will be pushing for higher honours. We also need to keep in mind that Beauden Barrett and Ardie Savea have not played a game this year.