With the dust settled on a super season of Super Rugby, let’s look at the stars who made a name for themselves in 2015.
Everyone will be familiar with the old adage “It’s a game of two halves”, however sometimes when it comes to comparing Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby it can be “a sport of two games.” From a purely aesthetical point of view there are very few similarities between the premier club rugby competitions in the two hemispheres. There is a cut throat, win at all costs mentality in Europe’s showcase European Champions Cup competition. From day one a team knows one defeat could prove fatal for their chances of progress, while two defeats is downright damning. Super Rugby’s 16 week league format allows teams to express themselves more openly, and work young talent onto their rosters rather than needing serial winners on the field each and every game. This allows New Zealand, Australia and South Africa to continually restock their resources and make up for the ever increasing number of front line players departing for the riches of the more lucrative, if slightly more mundane North.
Every season there are stellar young guns who make a name for themselves in Super Rugby. Establishing a platform for them to launch on to International honours. Here are the top 10-6 breakthrough stars of the 2015 Super Rugby season.
- Nic Stirzaker – Melbourne Rebels
The 24 year old isn’t a totally new name to Super Rugby followers having debuted with the Rebels in 2012. This was the season however that the English born scrum half cemented his place as an important member of the Melbourne based franchises’ starting XV. He edged his way ahead of the 37 time capped Wallaby Luke Burgess for the number 9 shirt and never looked back. Stirzaker started 14 times this term, as opposed to the 6 starts he had accumulated between 2012-2014 seasons.
Stirzaker has a zippy delivery, but is also a constant menace around the fringes where is able to take advantage of any slack defence, and exploit it with a quick burst of pace where he averaged almost 5 meters a carry over the season. A big improvement this term came from the fact he added a scoring threat to his game, as he crossed for his first ever Rebels try, in Round 1 against the Crusaders, and finished the season with 3 tries in total, which was 3rd highest for his team. In addition he provided the final pass for a further five scores in an all-round impressive attacking campaign. Australia seem well set at scrum half at the moment, but if Stirzaker continues his current rate of development and ignores overseas advances he has the potential to establish himself as Australia’s number 1 scrum half in the not too distant future.
- Samu Kerevi – Queensland Reds
Another who had a small taste of Super Rugby in 2014 before introducing himself in some fashion this time round is Samu Kerevi, who provedd he is a youngster on a mission. The 21 year old was a shining light in a side that struggled all season, one that recorded only four wins. The Fijian born, former Australian u-20 international showed his versatility by lining out at both first and second centre over the course of the campaign. At 6 foot 1” and weighing in at 17 stone, Kerevi has all the physical requirements to be a success at this level, and highlighted his attacking capabilities by beating 31 defenders over the course of his 14 outings. While he showed a keen eye for the try line by topping his sides try scorer count by crossing 6 times, no mean feat while playing for a team that recorded singled digit scores in five of their 16 outings.
Kerevi’s excellent first full campaign hasn’t gone unnoticed on a national level either, as Michael Cheika has called up the powerful back to be part of his 40 man Rugby Championship squad. The Reds man is a long shot to ultimately be included in the Wallabies World Cup selection but given the different skill set he possess compared to the rest of his rivals, a strong showing over the coming weeks could see him follow in the footsteps of his cousin Radike Samo who represented Australia at the 2011 World Cup.
- Vincent Koch – Stormers
South Africa has long been a hot bed for producing world class props and the latest product off the conveyor belt looks destined for the top. The development of props at the highest level often takes time, hence Koch’s belated arrival at this level, at the age of 24. Some powerful performances in the Currie Cup helped seal his place on the Stormers roster for 2015 and he has not disappointed in his debut campaign. Widely regarded as a talented tighthead, he has also has the ability to fill in on the loose head side if needs be. Koch was an ever present for the Stormers in his debut campaign for the Cape Town based franchise. Having begun the season as first choice tight head ahead of South African international rival Frans Malherbe, Koch would have been disappointed to lose the starting birth midway through the campaign after 7 consecutive starts. But bearing in mind he is still learning at this level, he continued to make an impact off the bench in the second half of the season.
As rugby has developed props are now required to be more dynamic around the field and Koch has been exemplary in this regard. He carried the ball more than any of the other front row players on the Stormers roster except Steven Kitshoff, while making the most tackles (89) off that group of players also. Kock has plenty going for him (pronunciation of surname aside) and has been included in South Africa’s squad for the upcoming Rugby Championship. If his first year is anything to go by, the reputation of South African props is in good hands with Vincent Koch.
- Akira Ioane – Blues
It may have been a season to forget for the proud New Zealand franchise, but through adversity comes greatness. New Zealand have no shortage of top quality back row forwards but the early signs suggest Akira Ioane won’t be waiting long to make his way up the pecking order. Ioane may be only just turned 20 but his 6 foot 4” and 17 and a half stone frame belies the dates on his birth cert. His season may have been slow to get started, he made just three appearance off the bench in the first 9 weeks, but once he got his start he became one of the first names on the Blues team sheet for the remainder of the season. He then started six consecutive fixtures in the Blues back row, and only missed the concluding two weeks of the campaign as he was tied up with the New Zealand u-20 side who went on the win the Junior World Cup.
A supremely talented ball carrier, Ioane made a real statement in only his third start for the Blues’ carrying for over 100 meters, including a staggering 55 metre try against the Western Force. Despite only playing in half his sides fixtures Ioane ended up carrying the ball the 7th most times for his side by the end of the season, averaging 8.4 meters per carry. Furthermore the 6 defenders he beat also saw him come 7th in this category. While defensively he was up to speed completing 45 of 47 attempted tackles, and weighing in with 9 turnovers. The Blues recorded only 3 wins in 2015 but if they can keep Ioane on the field all season in 2016 and build around him there is plenty room to recover.
- Dillyn Leyds – Stormers
In what was an overall disappointing season for the South African franchises the Stormers kept the flag flying all season by finishing 3rd in the overall table, and by being the only South African side in the top 7. This was achieved in no small part thanks to an exciting young backline that included the likes Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe and Dillyn Leyds. Of this exciting trio, Leyds had the least amount of Super rugby exposure pre 2015, but you would never tell from his mature all round play. Leyds is the archetypal utility back with the ability to play fly half, full back or on either wing. And it was the wing he made his home this past season. He had a quick stint in Australia with the Western Force in 2014 but now being back in Cape Town the former u-20 World Cup winner has found his groove.
He topped the teams charts for tries scored with 6, and proved himself constantly eager to get involved by carrying for an average of 7.9 yards a carry, as well as making 21 clean breaks which was second only to Damian de Allende. While defensively he contributed by coming up with 17 turnovers as well as completing 90% of his tackles. Leyds may not have found his definitive position as of yet, but the 22 year old certainly showed himself adept as wing, be it left or right and certainly has a bright future ahead.
For part 2 and our top 5 breakthrough stars of the Super Rugby 2015 season, check back tomorrow.