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A surplus of 12s but a poor year for locks: Our 2022 Super Rugby Pacific team of the (regular) season

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Expert
4th June, 2022
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Before we forget the round robin, and focus on the heroes of the final four or two grand finalists, come let us do that thing which started sports sites: debate the team. The team of the tournament, pre-playoffs.

Let us not waste time on the typical side-debates. This is judged over the entire season. It is not a statement of who might be the best Test player. Alex Nankivell is not going to be an All Black, but he had a hell of a club season this year.

We are not remembering other years. We are not forming combinations: it is just who played their position best.

We are not putting guys in other positions just to wedge them in.

We assume fitness, but reward durability in this season: workhorses over flashes of brilliance.

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We do not try to find proportional representation.

It is a full 23, with the trendy 6-2 split on the bench. And we need a coach.

That coach is Leon MacDonald, he of the long suffering Auckland firmament. He nurtured Dalton Papalii, Caleb Clarke, Hoskins Sotutu, and Stephen Perofeta into stars; and found the best way to use Beauden Barrett.

His team is finding unusual and plucky ways to win. He narrowly takes the clipboard from extraordinary man manager Darren Coleman of New South Wales, who I’ve written about in glowing terms. The turnaround artist; the happy grinder. But the Blues have turned in one of the best seasons in history.

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NSW Waratahs coach Darren Coleman (Photo by Getty Images).

NSW Waratahs coach Darren Coleman (Photo by Getty Images).

At the back, we start with the easiest selection of all. Will Jordan knows where the ball is before the ball does. He’s deadly when he finds it, which is often. He runs like he is chased by a pack of warthogs. He does not make many errors. He beats out the Reds’ eight-try Jock Campbell by a few lengths.

My 2022 SRP wings are Sevu Reece and Caleb Clarke. The Crusaders right wing is easier to pick than Clarke on the left; Reece made a clean break in every match, and finished nine tries.

Tom Wright made my scratch sheet, but made too many errors to go along with his eight tries and 12 breaks, compared to the live wire Reece who reminded of Bryan Habana with his lethal vision and pace, as well as his hunger for the ball.

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On the left, Leicester Fainga’anuku made a strong case for the jersey: almost unstoppable in space, he finished 11 breaks with 10 tries. He may also be an All Black answer to the pesky rush defence.

But Clarke, despite being knocked out of the finals by a dodgy hamstring popped whilst chasing a leaking Nic White, was one of the best players in the competition. He chased each kick like there was no tomorrow. He has improved his tackling technique. He is still an impossible buffalo to tackle.

The midfield is not clear to me.

At 12: Irae Simone was smooth as silk. Quinn Tupaea carried his team (143 hard carries). Hamish Stewart was a tackle monster (173 stops, most of them big collisions). Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has the best feet in the comp, and will likely get a look from Ian Foster. Jordie Barrett beat 39 defenders and made 28 offloads from 141 bruising carries.

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Hell, it was raining twelves. But I went with Levi Aumua of the Moana Pasifika, a team second only to the Canes for beating defenders despite having the worst ball-winning set pieces, and usually starting on the back foot. Aumua broke tackles. He bounced 43 big tacklers who knew he was coming. That’s a game plan. That’s incredibly difficult to do.

Rieko Ioane takes the 13 jersey ahead of the worthy Nankivell, 40-defender beating Izzy Perese, and hard Hunter Paisami. He’s learnt the position. It looks natural now, and he is the toughest cover in the tournament with his speed and size and utter cockiness.

At flyhalf, it might have been James O’Connor had he stayed healthy. But he broke down. Richie Mo’unga broke a lot of defenders’ ankles, but was outplayed by Beauden Barrett. However, I will leave Barrett to the bench, as we have a 6-2 configuration and he does not kick for goals. Player 23 was either him or his brother.

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For me, it came down to young guns Bryn Gatland and Tane Edmed. Someone at the nine or ten spot has to get a bit of credit for team turnarounds. Edmed was a revelation, seeing off two rivals at the Waratahs, never seeing red, and kicked at about 4 of 5 rate.

Was he better than Gatland? The Chiefs pivot was strong-minded. Clear. It is tough, but on balance, it is probably Gatland, even if I want to go with the ginger playmaker because he reminds me of a 10-12 Handre Pollard (doused in paprika).

There was a bumper crop of loud and nasty nines in 2022. Tate McDermott found more holes than a randy mole. Aaron Smith’s understudy at the Highlanders was just about enough to drag the team into the finals. Brad Weber was at times imperious.

But Aaron Smith does not get his due because his pass is still the single biggest edge in rugby, even more than Antoine Dupont’s immense talent. All teams are seeking fast ruck ball. Smith makes slow ball fast.

Nic White must be the reserve 9. He is getting better with age. Annoying as a neighbour on a plane who takes the armrest and eats homemade salmon paste whilst reading a book about boundaries aloud and chewing teriyaki biltong which he picks out of his teeth and mustache with his pinkie finger, which he wipes on your armrest he stole. Also, he can kick when it is him and BBBBB on.

Nic White of the Brumbies juggles the ball.

Nic White of the Brumbies juggles the ball. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Backline: Aaron Smith, Bryn Gatland, Caleb Clarke, Levi Aumua, Rieko Ioane, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan (Nic White, Beauden Barrett).

Right. The pack.

No. 8 was stacked this year, but it came down to three blockbuster carriers from the base. Ardie Savea, Pita Gus Sowakula, and Henry Time-Stowers just could not be stopped and when they ran into the Aussie eights Harry the Horse Wilson (158 tackles, 202 carries) and Will Hasselhoff Harris, the difference was felt. In the stands. It was loud.

I will leave Ardie on the bench because he can cover flank (and is a better flank than No 8) so it is a straight shootout between Sowakula and Time-Stowers.

Purely because Time-Stowers was playing behind a beaten pack and still made it over the gainline time after time (144 times) I will give him the nod.

A career year which sets him up for a 2023 which may include a Samoan win over Japan and Argentina to qualify for the knockouts in France.

This is cruel for Sowakula who even changed a rugby law about leaping because he is too good.

At blindside, Dalton Papalii was just a bit better than busy Fraser McReight (174 tackles), Michael Hooper (half a season), slowing Sam Cane, and cult hero Charlie Gamble. He was a complete two-way player.

At blindside, I considered honest grafter Ethan Blackadder but I just don’t find him as influential as others do.

It was either Rob Valetini or Pablo Matera for me. Both excelled. Valetini’s absence gutted the Brumbies’ power game. Matera was maniacal. In the end, Matera influenced more games than Valetini did.

It was not a good year for locks in Super Rugby Pacific. This is the worry for the Test season.

Those who stood out? Jed Holloway (more of a 5.5) who was transformed. Matt Philip continues to over perform (18 offloads on 136 brutal carries and 61 lineout wins). Scott Barrett pounded people. Izack Rodda was workmanlike. Brodie Retallick retuned with a vengeance, albeit not as gnarly as the locks playing in other competitions.

On balance, I was most impressed with Tupou Vaa’i of the Chiefs and old Jed of the Tahs. Because I have a bomb squad, I can name Philip along with surprise hero Luke Romano.

In the front rows, hooker was most interesting.

The older stars faded. So, Samisoni Taukei’aho, jackler Kurt Eklund, and dart thrower Dave Porecki stepped up.

I will start Samisoni with Eklund on the bench.

At loosehead, Aidan Ross nips Joe Moody and Angus Bell. I take Bell to the bench because he carries better than Moody.

At tighthead, Ofa Tuungafasi was the best of the lot, with Ethan de Groot just behind. Injury troubles doomed Taniela Tupou, and Allan Alaalatoa was not quite at the top of his game.

Forwards: Aidan Ross, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Ofa Tuungafasi, Tupou Vaa’i, Jed Holloway, Pablo Matera, Dalton Papalii, Henry Time-Stowers (Kurt Eklund, Angus Bell, Ethan de Groot, Matt Philip, Luke Romano, Ardie Savea).

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