The Wellington Hurricanes whipped up a storm and finally broke their 21-year drought in winning the 2016 title beating a gallant Lions side in the final. In the first season to feature teams from Japan and Argentina, who makes the team of the season?
15 Ben Smith (Highlanders)
Smith’s selection is tough on excitement machine Damian McKenzie who leads in almost all attacking statistics in the Super 18, but unfortunately also features highly in missed tackles. Ben the accountant, is immaculate on all fronts, organised, clinical and world class. Other contenders among many high quality performers in this position were a resurgent Israel Dagg (Crusaders), elusive Reece Hodge (Rebels), electric Melani Nani (Blues) and the underrated James Marshall (Hurricanes).
14 Ruan Combrinck (Lions)
Combrinck had a stellar season in which he also gained international honours. He was a constant threat in the final and gained the most metres (79) for the Lions during the game. Other contenders include prolific tryscorer Akihito Yamada (Sunwolves), canny Cory Jane (Hurricanes), electric Sergeal Petersen (Cheetahs) and powerful Waisake Naholo (Highlanders).
13 Israel Folau (Warratahs)
If ever a team was a one man team, it seemed to be the Warratahs. Folau almost carried them to the playoffs but even his competition leading 11 tries were not enough. The Lions’ Lionel Mapoe also featured very strongly until the final, where he and the other Lions backs were swamped by the quick line speed of the Hurricanes. Ryan Crotty was also typically solid for the Crusaders in this position.
12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Lions)
Janse van Rensburg combined with Mapoe to form an explosive centre pairing for the Lions, and the pair were in the top 5 players for tries and other attacking statistics. He couldn’t find the same freedom against the Hurricanes -but then no team crossed their tryline in their last three games.
11 Courtnall Skosan (Lions)
Skosan has tracer bullet speed and strong positional awareness to put himself into gaps. He is a similar player to Jason Robinson in terms of his attacking strengths. Another Lion unable to display his brilliance in the wet windy conditions in the final – the Lions coach might have the biggest mistake of the season sending a second string team to play the Jaguares in Argentina, losing, and thus giving up a home final and the promise of a dry track. Lowe had another consistent season for the Chiefs, with a strong, skillful all-round game that must surely result in higher representative recognition soon.
10 Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes)
Undisputedly the player of the Super 18, Barrett had an exceptional final with a strong kicking game, positional sense, immaculate goal kicking and of course his predatory instincts led to an almost inevitable try. He was the top points scorer (233) in the Super 18, raising the consistency of his place kicking and scoring some sensational tries (9) using his freakish pace and skills. Elton Jantjies produced a superb performance to dominate the Highlanders in the semi-final but was bullied off his game in the final by the rampaging Brad Shields and Ardie Savea. Other top performers in the most influential position were the All Blacks Sopoaga (Highlanders) and Cruden (Chiefs) and young Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders) who stepped into some pretty big boots successfully in his rookie season.
9 TJ Perenara (Hurricanes)
Perenara started the season quietly but became incredibly influential during the Hurricanes hot run of seven unbeaten games all the way to the championship. He seems to have widened his spatial awareness and has lost his over-exuberant run everything myself from everywhere play from the past. He also contributes hugely in defense, making some crucial covering tackles in the semi-final and final. Faf de Klerk ignited the Lions and he had a typically combative game in the final, including one huge tackle on Brad Shields. All Black Aaron Smith was also typically classy for the Highlanders.
8 Victor Vito (Hurricanes)
Victor Vito lead the Hurricanes pack with aggression and industry, and it is sad that he is heading to a French club contract just as all parts of his game have come together. Warren Whiteley (Lions), Daniel du Preez (Sharks) and Kieran Read (Crusaders) also showed up well, and Read seems to be clear of the concussion issues which plagued him in 2015.
7 Ardie Savea (Hurricanes)
Probably a close second to Barrett in player of the year honours, Ardie was ferocious and industrious, pacy and skilful, the evolvement of his game is so precipitous, it is difficult to believe he is only 22. The leading tackle maker in the Super 18 season, he was a monster at breakdowns and had huge running games in the semi-final and final. He must surely have his hands ready for the coveted no.7 All Black starting jersey. Sam Cane (Chiefs) and the invincible Schalk Burger (Stormers) were typically hardworking, and some exciting newcomers appeared in this position, notably Kara Pryor (Blues) and Jean Luc du Preez (Sharks).
6 Jaco Kriel (Lions)
While the Lions backs received a lot of plaudits during the season, Kriel was often the link to the forwards, marauding wide winning turnovers and busting tackles. He was the top forward in defenders beaten (56) during the season, and fourth overall, ahead of the likes of Israel Folau. Jerome Kaino’s form was a big part of the Blues’ late resurgence, combining his usual brutality at the breakdown with some surprisingly pacy running which saw him score four tries in two games in the latter part of the season. Brad Shields had a huge season for the Hurricanes, especially defensively, and his tireless work in the final must surely have caught the attention of the All Black selectors. Elliot Dixon (Highlanders) also showed up in this position.
5 Brodie Retallick (Chiefs)
Retallick provides some grit to the gas of the Chiefs team. His engine is such that he almost always plays out 80 minutes and his backrow skills have revolutionised the position. Michael Fatialofa (Hurricanes) has been a revelation this season, going from the Canes’ wider training squad to a real All Blacks contender for the end of season tour. South African Stormers locks Eben Etzebeth and Pieter Steph du-Toit dominated the early rounds of the Super 18, but were found out once they met the New Zealand sides and the pace and skill level lifted.
4 Vaea Fifita (Hurricanes)
Fifita, like Fatialofa literally and figuratively made giant strides this season. Each time the pair were matched up against more experienced locks, they matched and often surpassed them in physicality, pace and skills. Fifita is a brutal tackler and an eye catching, high striding, pacy runner. The fact that the pair have not been awarded places in the All Black squad shows the scary depths of talent Steve Hansen has at his disposal.
3 Vincent Koch (Stormers)
Koch is a dynamic, bruising prop with an eye for the tryline. His Stormers team were run off their feet and out of the competition by the Chiefs, but Koch never gave up, scoring two tries in the match. Owen Franks had another solid season and a newcomer with a lot of potential was unearthed in Tom Robertson (Warratahs), who has been called up to the Wallaby squad.
2 Dane Coles (Hurricanes)
Coles, like Retallick, has raised expectations on the skills and duties in his position. Coles’ lineout throwing is pinpoint, he is an abrasive tackler but also has pace and offloading skills which often see him busting onto a backline pass on a Conrad Smith-like line and scoring. Stephen Moore (Brumbies) led his team to the playoffs, also scoring some crucial tries and Augustin Creevy kept the Jaguares spirit burning, culminating in some strong wins in the final games of the season.
1 Loni Uhila (Hurricanes)
It is admittedly a big call to select the Tongan bear, Uhila in the no. 1 position. After all, he barely featured in the early rounds of the competition and only cemented a starting place as late as round 18. However, such has been the energy and involvement of the Mr T lookalike and heavyweight boxer, no other prop matches him in terms of impact. In the final, he made 10 tackles and was part of a Hurricanes scrum which wavered at first, matched and then dominated the Lion pack. On the way to cult hero status in Wellington.