Super Rugby Pacific: Seven players to watch including former England fly-half Freddie Burns

Super Rugby Pacific Seven players to watch image 2023.jpg Credit: Alamy
Super Rugby Pacific Seven players to watch image 2023.jpg Credit: Alamy

Ahead of this year’s Super Rugby Pacific campaign, we pick out the players to watch, including an English playmaker and two returning All Blacks keen to make an impact.

Most of the squads have made some significant changes, with several players on the move. Here is a list of players that we feel will make their presence felt during this season.

Freddie Burns

One of the biggest surprises ahead of this year’s competition was the Highlanders’ decision to bring in the former England fly-half, who has joined the Dunedin-based franchise after being released mid-season by his club in England, Leicester Tigers.

Acquiring Burns’ services was a shrewd bit of business on the Highlanders’ part as the 32-year-old’s experience should come in handy during a rigorous Super Rugby Pacific campaign. Primarily a fly-half – but also capable of filling in at full-back – Burns will battle with Mitch Hunt and Marty Banks for the Highlanders’ number 10 jersey.

It will be interesting to see how Burns adapts in New Zealand and how well he fares in a competition which he has never played in before. A veteran of more than 100 appearances for Leicester – over two stints – the former England international is an experienced campaigner who also had lengthy spells at Gloucester and Bath in the Premiership. He scored the match-winning drop goal for Leicester in their win over Saracens in last season’s Premiership final and will be aiming to reach similar heights with the Highlanders.

Jack Goodhue

Having Goodhue fit will be a significant boost for perennial Super Rugby champions the Crusaders as the All Blacks centre is set to return to action after missing last year’s Test season due to a a knee injury.

That was a major setback for Goodhue as he was in good form for the Crusaders during their victorious 2022 Super Rugby Pacific campaign. That he played in that tournament was already a significant achievement as he made a successful return to action after also missing the entire 2021 international campaign due to a serious knee injury sustained while on Super Rugby duty.

When on song, the 27-year-old is a vital cog in the Crusaders machine and he has been at the forefront of several of their successes in recent years. A dangerous attacker, with a great skill-set and an astute rugby brain, Goodhue will be keen to prove that he still has what it takes to shine in this competition.

Damian McKenzie

Another All Black who will be champing at the bit after missing the entire 2022 Super Rugby Pacific campaign, having played his club rugby in Japan for the season.

McKenzie‘s utility value is one of his strengths as he is equally at home in the fly-half or full-back positions. However, it is in the number 10 jersey where he will be hoping to make an impact as the Hamilton-based outfit look to improve on last year’s overall performance when they were knocked out in the semi-finals by eventual champions the Crusaders.

Brilliant off the kicking tee, the 27-year-old will be expected to keep the scoreboard ticking for the Chiefs with accurate goal-kicking, while his superb playmaking skills should wreak havoc against opposing defences as he has the ability to create plenty of try-scoring opportunities for himself and his team-mates.

Nemani Nadolo

There was plenty of excitement amongst the Waratahs’ fans when it was announced that Nadolo would be joining their ranks as the behemoth flyer made his return to Australia where he spent most of his younger days.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for the former Leicester Tiger at the Waratahs as the former Australia U20 representative was originally contracted to the Sydneysiders in 2009. Nadolo has of course moved on to represent Fiji at international level where he has made his mark with numerous excellent performances with ball in hand.

At his best, the 35-year-old is one of the most destructive ball carriers in the business and he will be determined to give his new team much needed attacking momentum. The former Crusader’s ability to draw in defenders is also something which the Waratahs will be keen to exploit as that should create try-scoring opportunities.

Folau Fainga’a

The Wallabies hooker will be a man on a mission as he is set to make his debut for the Western Force at Super Rugby Pacific level after leaving the Brumbies at the end of last season.

What makes Fainga’a’s move to the Western Australian outfit so interesting is that he will only spend one season with the Force before he moves to France where he will further his career with Clermont Auvergne from the end of this year. Although he has earned a reputation for scoring tries off the back of the Brumbies’ much vaunted lineout drives, Fainga’a also has several other strengths.

Excellent in the execution of his core duties, especially his scrummaging and defence, his addition to the Force’s squad should be a boost for the men from Perth, who will be keen to impress under the guidance of new head coach Simon Cron.

Luke Jones

Like McKenzie, Jones also returns to his homeland but, unlike the New Zealand utility back, the Australian second-row has spent much longer than a year outside his country as he last played rugby in Australia in 2019 when he was on the Melbourne Rebels’ books.

The six-Test Wallaby spent the next three years plying his trade at Top 14 clubs Racing 92 and Bordeaux-Begles where he has built up plenty of experience which should come in handy for the Reds at Super Rugby level. Although he is not big for a lock, Jones makes up for his lack of size with sheer tenacity and plenty of aggression and he will be keen to hit the ground running in his new surroundings.

The 31-year-old, who can also play on the flank, has signed a three-year deal with the men from Brisbane and although he is in the latter part of his career, his recruitment offsets the loss of fellow Wallabies Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Angus Scott-Young, who joined Northampton Saints in the Premiership.

Meli Derenalagi

There will be plenty of pressure on the 24-year-old as he has been appointed as the Fijian Drua’s captain for their campaign in this year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition.

However, Derenalagi is not stranger to the leadership role as he was the Pacific Island team’s stand-in skipper for numerous matches during last year’s campaign while their regular captain – Nemani Nagusa – served a lengthy suspension for foul play. Although Drua only notched two wins from their 12 matches played, they were competitive in several encounters under the blindside flanker’s guidance.

The 2020 Olympic Sevens gold medallist is the type of player who leads by his actions and he caught the eye with numerous barnstorming performances in 2022, in which he shone as a ball carrier and in the execution of his defensive duties. His team-mates usually followed his lead and Derenalagi will be hoping for more of the same this season.

READ MORE: Super Rugby Pacific: Five bold predictions for the 2023 edition, including a shift in the on-field hierarchy

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