As we head into the Super Rugby play-offs this Friday and Saturday we select five players who will decide where the trophy will be heading for another year:
Israel Folau (Waratahs)
It’s been an interesting few months for the Wallabies and Waratahs custodian. After some highly controversial comments on social media there were calls for his Rugby Australia contract to be torn up but Folau is such a good player – and so important to both his national and state teams – that that was never going to happen. No sooner had he got through that controversy than he was plunged into another as he was yellow carded and then suspended for one match for contesting the ball in the air in the third Test against Ireland. Folau had been getting back to his best but that one week break seems to have upset his rhythm slightly and he was off-key in the Tahs surprise loss to the Brumbies on Saturday. If NSW are to get past the Highlanders then they need Folau at his very best – tough amidst all the off-field drama.
Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes)
Another mis-firing superstar is the two-time World Rugby player of the year, the one and only BB. The Hurricanes were dreadful as they went down to a second string Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday with some of the poorest kicking in memory from a New Zealand team. The worse culprit was Beauden, closely followed by his younger brother Jordie. On his day BB is without peer on the world rugby stage but he has not been the same after a heavy knock in the series against France and you can’t help but wonder if he is a little gun-shy at present. His running game seems a couple of steps off top pace, his distribution fuzzy and his kicking – as mentioned above – woeful. The Chiefs B team were easily the better side last weekend and if the Canes hope to turn it around this Saturday then BB must get back to his best.
Damian McKenzie (Chiefs)
One player who is definitely not down on form is the Chiefs fly-half who has been scintillating in recent months both for his Super Rugby franchise and the All Blacks. With McKenzie at No10 the Chiefs have been devastating since the international break racing to a 42-0 lead against the Highlanders in Suva at half time. (They did the same against the Hurricanes 21-0 up after 30 minutes without McKenzie, but that’s another story.) Diminutive McKenzie is just 1.75m and 81kgs but he plays like a giant with super sonic speed. His pace and decision making with the ball in hand is second to none and his kicking out of hand and for the posts first class. If the All Blacks were picked on form then it would be McKenzie not BB starting the first Bledisloe in Sydney on August 18. But for now McKenzie is the Canes problem and if the Chiefs forward are as hungry as they were in Hamilton it’s impossible not to see the Mooloo men racking up another big lead this Saturday, in Wellington or not.
George Bridge (Crusaders)
The understated Crusaders wing is not the first name that would pop into your head when choosing an All Blacks back line. At just 23-years-old the Canterbury wide man has played all 15 games for the Crusaders this season and in those 15 games he has scored 14 tries – three more of them against the hapless Blues on Saturday. Bridge is not a magnificent finisher in the mold of Nehe Milner-Skudder or a devastating runner like Reiko Ioane. But what he is very good at is getting in the right position at the end of yet another sweeping Crusaders move, catching a pass and putting it over the line. Because so good are the Crusaders that’s all he has to do. His 14 tries see him sit second on the top tryscorers list, one behind Taqele Naiyaravoro, and his 1236 metres carried see him fourth on that list – as time and time again the Crusaders machine puts him into wide open space. Bridge is playing as the scoring piston in a simply magnificent rugby machine, playing a 15-man brand of the game where every player fits smoothly into the overall matrix. Bridge has the lovely job of scoring the try at the end of all the hard work done by the rest of the team – and Bridge does it very well.
George Bridge is on the verge of breaking the #SuperRugby try scoring record for a season as he added another 3️⃣️ to his season tally of 1️⃣️4️⃣️ against The Blues on Saturday. 🏉🔥#StatChat pic.twitter.com/AHCf4R4V7Z— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) July 17, 2018
Malcolm Marx (Lions)
The beast that is Malcolm Marx is back. The Lions and Springboks rake is simply the top hooker in world rugby at the moment. Fearsome at the set piece he is even more devastating in open play where he resembles a slightly larger and more mobile version of France midfielder Mathieu Bastareaud. Marx was injured back in May playing against the Hurricanes, a troublesome hamstring ruling him out for six weeks – meaning he missed the entire test series against England. But thankfully for the Lions (and South Africa) he returned after the international break and it has made a massive difference to the Lions chances of claiming their first ever Super Rugby crown. Without Marx, and inspirational captain Warren Whiteley, the Lions were missing a lot of their sting – but with the two key men now back in the ranks the Lions flexed their muscles ahead of the playoffs with a dominant 38-12 victory over arch rivals the Bulls last Saturday, with Marx claiming his customary five-pointer. With the Lions finishing second and likely facing a trip to New Zealand they are still long shots this year but with Marx in the picture they at least have their best chance.
2 international hookers will lock horns on Saturday when the Emirates Lions host the Jaguares at Emirates Airline Park with Malcolm Marx and Agustin Creevy line up for the VSR quarter-final. This is just one of a host of big head-to-head match-ups that will be on show.#LetsUnite pic.twitter.com/v3lD5E0Tz3— Emirates Lions (@LionsRugbyCo) July 16, 2018
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