Super charged: Battle of the playmakers, all eyes on Mark Telea and the Crusaders

Super charged Round Two image 2023.jpg Credit: Alamy
Super charged Round Two image 2023.jpg Credit: Alamy

Making its return, we bring you Super charged, in which we preview the main talking points ahead of the next round of Super Rugby Pacific action.

Games to watch

Melbourne Rebels v Hurricanes

There is plenty of excitement ahead of this weekend’s action as it is a Super Round in which all the matches will be played at a centralised venue – AAMI Park in Melbourne – and the Rebels will be determined to clinch a victory in their backyard against the Hurricanes.

Playing on their home patch obviously does not guarantee the Rebels a win and they will have to dig deep to beat the Hurricanes, who made a terrific start to this year’s tournament when they cruised to an impressive 47-13 victory over the Reds in Townsville last week.

By contrast, the Rebels started their campaign with a narrow 34-27 defeat against the Western Force in Perth. They will be kicking themselves over that result as they held the upper-hand for most of the match, and were leading 24-10 at half-time, before the Force took the spoils after a superb fightback.

Meanwhile, a brilliant second-half performance from the Hurricanes sealed their victory over the Reds with the likes of Jordie Barrett, Asafo Aumua, Julian and Ardie Savea all playing prominent roles in their triumph. Those players are all back in the ‘Canes matchday squad this weekend and will be hoping to continue where they left off in Townsville.

The home side will be relying on players like Italy flyer Monty Ioane, Carter Gordon and Richard Hardwick to provide direction as they all shone against the Force, while Trevor Hosea will be keen to impress as he makes his first Rebels start since 2021.

The last time these sides met the Hurricanes had too much firepower and the Rebels will be keen to avoid last year’s result in Wellington.

Western Force v Reds

There will be plenty of confidence in the Force’s ranks as they hope to build on last weekend’s positive result at home against the Rebels, while the Reds will be desperate to get their campaign on track after slipping up in their opener against the Hurricanes.

That victory over the Rebels was a great start to new Force head coach Simon Cron’s tenure as they were under the pump for long periods of that match but showed plenty of determination before notching their win.

Former All Blacks second-row Jeremy Thrush has been promoted off the Force bench, after scoring the match-winning try last week, while Wallabies hooker Folau Fainga’a is set to make his debut for the men from Perth.

Meanwhile, Reds head coach Brad Thorn has reacted to their defeat by making numerous changes to his run-on side. The Brisbane-based outfit should put up a better performance than they did in their opener against the Hurricanes especially after adding the Wallabies quartet of Liam Wright, Suliasi Vunivalu, James O’Connor and Jock Campbell to their ranks.

Wright’s addition to the squad should make them more competitive at the breakdowns while they should ask plenty of questions of the Force’s defence with Vunivalu, O’Connor and Campbell in their starting line-up.

Matches between the Force and Reds are usually tight affairs but despite their poor start to this year’s Super Rugby Pacific campaign, the Reds will be in a confident mood as they beat the Force in Perth in the previous clash between these teams, last year.

Player to watch – Mark Telea (Blues)

The All Blacks flyer was the star of the opening round as he hit the ground running for the Blues as they claimed a 60-20 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

As the scoreline suggests, the Blues were in a rampant mood with Telea on fire from start to finish and he proved a real handful to the home side’s defenders. His brilliance on attack saw him gaining 202 metres, which was more than any other player in Round One. That was achieved from 13 runs which included four clean breaks, a whopping 13 defenders beaten, an offload and he was rewarded with a brace of tries.

Those statistics will make the 26-year-old a marked man when the Blues go up against the Brumbies in the early game on Sunday. It is a repeat of last season’s semi-final in Auckland, when the Blues had to dig deep before claiming a narrow 20-19 victory.

If Telea’s team-mates can create space for him out wide, he should provide headaches to the Brumbies defence and that could make things easier for the men from Auckland.

One-v-one battle to watch – Christian Leali’ifano (Moana Pasifika) v Damian McKenzie (Chiefs)

There will be plenty of interest in Saturday’s battle between Moana Pasifika and the Chiefs as it pits two outstanding fly-halves against each other in Leali’ifano and McKenzie.

Leali’ifano might be in the twilight of his career but he is still a vital cog in the Moana machine with his playmaking skills, game management and goal-kicking still of a high standard.

The 35-year-old was in fine form in his side’s opener against the Fijian Drua and although they suffered a narrow defeat, Leali’ifano caught the eye with a solid all-round performance where he shone on attack and contributed nine points off the kicking tee.

He is up against a tough adversary in McKenzie who was one of the Chiefs’ best performers in their shock away victory over the Crusaders.

The All Black was pulling the strings in the Hamilton-based outfit’s backline with superb line breaks and deft offloads which created try-scoring opportunities for his team-mates. And like Leali’ifano, his goal-kicking was also of a high standard as he finished with an 11-point haul in his side’s 31-10 triumph.

Both playmakers will be hoping to continue in that vein when they face off on Saturday.

Subplot to watch – Crusaders’ response against Highlanders

Few people would have predicted the end result of last weekend’s Super Rugby Pacific opener between the Crusaders and Chiefs in Christchurch as the visitors clinched a deserved win.

That is unfamiliar territory for Super Rugby’s perennial champions as it was the first time they lost a season-opener under the guidance of their head coach Scott Robertson. The last time the Crusaders tasted defeat in a Round One encounter was in 2016, and that was also against the Chiefs.

Although last weekend’s result was an unexpected one, the Christchurch-based side will not panic and don’t be surprised if there is a backlash against the Highlanders, who also made a slow start to the tournament with that huge defeat to the Blues.

With both teams on zero points on the table, there will be some desperation in their ranks ahead of this showdown.

Judging from previous matches between these teams, the Crusaders will start Friday’s game in Melbourne as the favourites. Since the start of Super Rugby in 1996, these teams have played each other on 44 occasions with the men from Christchurch victorious on 31 occasions, with the Highlanders winning 12 times and one match ended in a draw.

The Crusaders have made some changes to their starting line-up with the main news being the experienced Sam Whitelock coming into the second-row, while last week’s experiment with David Havili at full-back has been shelved as he is back at inside centre.

Meanwhile, the big talking point in the Highlanders camp is that former England fly-half Freddie Burns comes into the run-on side as a replacement for Mitch Hunt.

Best of the rest

There is just one other game taking place during the Super Round in Melbourne this weekend.

On Saturday, the Fijian Drua will be hoping to continue there fine start to the season when they take on the Waratahs, who will be eager to secure victory after coming up short against the Brumbies in their opener.

Both sides impressed in those respective matches and have some excitement machines in their ranks. For the Drua, keep an eye on former Fiji Sevens representative Iosefo Masi while in the Waratahs camp, teenager Max Jorgensen is one to watch.

The duo were included in our Super Rugby Pacific Round One Team of the Week and will be hoping to continue with their excellent form.

READ MORE: Super Rugby Pacific: Five storylines ahead of the Super Round including an intriguing semi-final replay

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