Super Rugby Pacific: The key head-to-heads to watch during the quarter-final ties

Super Rugby Pacific head to heads Credit: Alamy
Super Rugby Pacific head to heads Credit: Alamy

With Super Rugby Pacific now at the quarter-final stage, we discuss the main battles from the four encounters taking place this weekend.

Blues v Waratahs

Dalton Papali’i v Michael Hooper

One of the most important tussles at Eden Park this weekend will be between the two skippers, who both have the ability to change a game.

Papali’i has grown tremendously as a leader and player over the last three years. He is an inspirational skipper who gets the best out of others by emptying his tank. The flanker is complete; he is a great ball carrier, a rock-solid defender and more than handy over the ball. In many ways, he is determination personified and his attributes will be critical in the play-off stage.

Up against him is one of the greatest players in Australian rugby history and a legend of the game. Hooper has been there and done it several times. He is similar to his opposite number in how he gets the best out of those around him through his own work ethic and determination.

We may not have seen the absolute best from the great flanker in 2023 but he certainly has what it takes to inspire a shock win for his side. With the odds stacked against the Waratahs, only a blockbuster effort from Hooper will get his side over the line.

Mark Telea v Dylan Pietsch

The second battle from the first quarter-final is certainly not as balanced as the first with Telea firing on all cylinders whilst Pietsch, who is a quality player, is still finding his feet to some extent on the big stage.

Telea has kicked on in a big way following his Test debut last year and quite frankly should be an All Blacks starter. One glance at the statistics for this season shows it all as the star leads defenders beaten. He is not just a game-changer, he is a game-breaker; the kind of player who can create something from nothing and execute on demand. 2023 will continue to be a big year for the wing, who is only getting started.

For Pietsch, who is genuinely a talented player, it is all about how to contain Telea. There will be a lot of chatter around the Blues wing within the Waratahs camp this week as they have to disarm the All Black or he will punish them. That is job number one for the New South Wales wing. Never mind scoring a try or creating play, if Pietsch can shut Telea down he would have done his job and some. Big, big game for the ‘Tah.

Chiefs v Reds

Damian McKenzie v Tom Lynagh

Within the game of rugby union, there are so many different kinds of positions and various jobs that come with that. There are a few key roles that are required to pull everything together and one of those is fly-half where our next battle is.

The return of ‘D-Mac’ could well be a blockbuster movie because it has been nothing short of a fairytale for McKenzie. The playmaker has been simply sensational and completely transformed the Chiefs in the process. His efforts earned him an extended contract and it is richly deserved.

McKenzie was always a great player but now he looks more mature and more complete. He is a magician who can do it all; run, pass, kick and step. However, all that counts for nothing if he does not produce the goods in the play-offs. All eyes will be on him and quite frankly, expect the same from a star who has owned Super Rugby Pacific this year.

The form of McKenzie makes a big game for 20-year-old Lynagh truly massive. He is talented, there is absolutely no question of that and he has proved his worth for the most part that he can handle the game at this level. The only difference is he has to match up to the best player this season. It will be fascinating to see how he handles the pressure. A huge game for a star who looks to have a stunning future.

Luke Jacobson v Harry Wilson

For the backline to run riot and exploit defences there needs to be hard work in the engine room and that is where our next battle comes in.

Jacobson could be feeling hard done by for how underrated he is. The star has been quietly brilliant this season because of his complete skill set for a back-row. His defence is sublime, he carries hard and give him a sniff at the breakdown and he will exploit it. His value is massive for the Chiefs who need their star-studded pack to fire. The All Black’s comprehensive attributes provide balance to the back-row. Keep an eye on him in the key plays this weekend.

His opposite number could well be an even harder worker and possibly the hardest of everyone in the competition. Wilson is a relentless carrier, a stat he leads in the tournament. The whole season long the number eight has carried and carried. He is no slouch on defence either with his tackle count ranking high up as well. The Wallaby is a coach’s dream and he consistently produces for the Reds. His combination with Fraser McReight in particular is central to a lot of the good from the Queenslanders.

Only time will tell as to which of the two hardest workers will come out on top in Waikato.

Crusaders v Fijian Drua

Dallas McLeod v Kalaveti Ravouvou

Two inside centres by trade, who have become makeshift wings over the latter part of the season, clash in Christchurch this weekend. Both have the basic facets which make them threats with ball in hand, namely pace, power and terrific skill sets, so it will be fascinating to see who has the better of it this weekend. What happens up front will no doubt play a part as to which individual gets the upper hand but, if there is parity in the set-piece, prepare for a blockbuster duel.

McLeod could well be a bolter for the All Blacks given his form, and fine displays in the end-of-season play-offs may well tip the balance his way. Ravouvou, meanwhile, perhaps has more of an ability to do the unexpected and Drua will need several moments of magic from the talented back if they are to get close to the Crusaders.

It will be an uphill battle for Drua on Saturday and few will give them a chance at the home of the defending champions, but the Pacific Islanders will not lack for spirit, while ultimately they have nothing to lose. That makes them, and specifically Ravouvou, very dangerous, with the 25-year-old given the freedom to produce all his tricks.

Braydon Ennor v Iosefo Masi

All what was said above regarding Ravouvou could also apply to their outside centre, who will look to continue his outstanding form. Arguably the newcomer of the season, Masi has been in stunning form, scoring nine tries in 13 matches.

Like so many Fijian backs, he combines incredible athleticism with a tremendous skill set, but the nuts and bolts of his game has been similarly impressive. The way that he has transitioned from Sevens marks him out as a special talent and he thoroughly deserves his place in Fiji’s wider training squad for the Rugby World Cup.

Up against him is the equally talented Ennor, who himself is trying to get into World Cup contention. After rupturing his ACL in September 2020, it has taken time for the back to find his best, but the signs are positive heading towards the end of the campaign. Despite a slow start to the season, the 25-year-old has improved over the course of the campaign and will very much be in Ian Foster’s thoughts heading towards the Rugby Championship.

Brumbies v Hurricanes

Lachlan Lonergan v Dane Coles

After generally playing second fiddle to Folau Fainga’a over the past couple of years, the 28-year-old’s departure to Western Force has enabled Lonergan to display his talent on a consistent basis from the start.

Excellent in the set-piece, the former age-grade star gives the Brumbies solidity in scrum and lineout, while he is also a workhorse on defence. The front-rower gets over the ball well and provides a breakdown threat, which will be crucial as they look to stop the Hurricanes from finding their fluency.

He will be up again the veteran Coles, 13 years his senior and still the Wellington outfit’s go-to man in the middle of the scrum. The All Blacks great has lost a yard of pace but he is still as combative as ever and returned to the side after several weeks on the sidelines for their victory over the Crusaders last time out.

It is very much apprentice against the master up front. Can the young upstart emerge triumphant or will the experienced Coles put Lonergan in his place?

Nic White v Cam Roigard

The Australian international remains one of the best in the game. As irritating as ever for opposing teams, White continues to direct the Brumbies around the field with aplomb, but he will have his hands full with the talented Roigard.

With TJ Perenara suffering a nasty injury against England late last year, there were concerns as to who would step up in his absence, but the 22-year-old has been superb. Arguably the best scrum-half in Super Rugby Pacific in 2023, he is terrific around the fringes and has already touched down nine times this season.

Thanks to his try-scoring instincts, superb service and sharp decision-making skills, he is a player, like McLeod, that could feature for the All Blacks heading towards the World Cup. Aaron Smith currently has the starting scrum-half jersey tied up, but behind him that position is very much open and Roigard is throwing his hat into the ring.

READ MORE: Five talking points ahead of the Super Rugby Pacific quarter-finals

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