As we edge closer to the business end of Super Rugby as well as the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand next month, the performances of those chasing the black jersey are getting better and better.
Richie Mo’unga led the Crusaders around the park as they extended their unbeaten run this season with a thrilling win over the Chiefs in Fiji.
The Hurricanes’ dynamic midfield of Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso were at their best as they heaped the points on the Cheetahs, while the Highlanders notched up their eighth win on the bounce with a high scoring win over the Force.
The Blues, meanwhile, saw their playoff chances take a huge blow with a loss to the Stormers — who remain the only overseas side to beat a New Zealand franchise this season. With all that in mind, here is the latest New Zealand team of the week.
15 Damian McKenzie (Chiefs)
So dangerous in broken play. Got the Chiefs over the advantage line on a number of occasions returning Crusaders kicks with interest. His stat sheet shows he beat six defenders in his 10 runs with the ball in hand. Should have been handed the goal-kicking duties earlier.
14 Seta Tamanivalu (Crusaders)
The Crusaders winger was brilliant with ball in hand at home in Fiji carving off plenty of metres when the ball came his way. His ability to offload the ball back on the inside gives the Crusaders a point of difference in their attack as he showed in the lead up to a brilliant try on the counter that was finished by David Havili.
13 Vince Aso (Hurricanes)
Jack Goodhue was superb for the Crusaders with a couple of brilliant touches in the lead up to their tries but its hard to look past Aso who scored another hat trick for the Hurricanes. Has formed a brilliant combination with Ngani Laumape and when the two have front foot ball, they are unstoppable. Showed electric pace in all three tries to equal Tana Umaga’s try-scoring record for the franchise.
12 Ngani Laumape (Hurricanes)
Could we see the All Blacks unleash Laumape against the Lions? He’s a raw talent but the Hurricanes midfielder is in scintillating form in the lead up to next month’s main event. Has the step, the strength and the pace, while also showing he’s got the touch with a pinpoint chip kick through for Aso to score his third. Anton Lienert-Brown also put his hand up for the All Blacks’ No. 12 jersey with a strong performance for the Chiefs.
11 James Lowe (Chiefs)
Another strong outing on the left flank from Lowe who was heavily involved during the Chiefs’ period of dominance in the first half against the Crusaders. Showed plenty of determination and patience to chase down a kick to score. Tevita Li also impressed for the Highlanders with a try and plenty of metres against the woeful Western Force.
10 Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders)
What a battle it was between Mo’unga and Aaron Cruden, who also showed shades of brilliance for the Chiefs. But it was the young Crusaders playmaker’s composure in the clutch as well as his brilliant running game that set up two of his side’s tries, while he had the temperament off the tee to keep the scoreboard ticking with his boot.
9 TJ Perenara (Hurricanes)
Continues to bang the door down for the starting halfback spot for the All Blacks against the Lions following another eye-catching game against the Cheetahs. Was heavily involved from the outset charging a 22-metre restart that led to a try, before taking a quick lineout that led to another as well as scoring one of his own from close range. He’s forced the most breakdown turnovers in the competition this season too which is ridiculous for a scrum-half.
1 Aki Seuli (Highlanders)
We all love seeing props getting over the whitewash and Seuli is developing a knack of being at the right place at the right time. Picked up two tries against the Force having been a late inclusion to the Highlanders starting side who have now won eight on the bounce.
2 Nathan Harris (Chiefs)
Didn’t miss a beat in his first start for the Chiefs this season. Has had an awful run with injuries, but showed accuracy at the lineout and abrasiveness in the tight that could see him re-enter the All Blacks fray especially with Dane Coles in doubt for the Lions tour.
3 Charlie Faumuina (Blues)
The Blues’ playoff chances might be all but over after their loss to the Stormers but Faumuina did everything in his power to get his side over the line in Cape Town. Followers of his game wouldn’t be surprised to see him lay off not one but two brilliant offloads that led to tries while his all round game at the set piece and in the tight was top drawer.
4 Luke Romano (Crusaders)
A colossal 80-minute effort in tandem with Sam Whitelock. Showed great hands to put Mo’unga away in the build up to Ben Funnell’s crucial try while his lineout steal just before full time created plenty of doubt that led to another Chiefs loss of possession at the set piece. Made his presence felt on defence too with some crunching tackles.
5 Brodie Retallick (Chiefs)
Threw the kitchen sink at the Crusaders in a losing effort. Was one of the best on the park for the Chiefs, heavily involved on both sides of the ball. His tackle to stop Manasa Mataele from scoring was gargantuan. Never has a bad game but his performances of late will be particularly pleasing for the All Blacks coaches.
6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (Crusaders)
It’s been astonishing this season to see the Crusaders throw relatively unknown players into the deep end and see them thrive. Bedwell-Curtis did just that as a late replacement for Matt Todd, leading the tackle count for the game against the Chiefs and ran the perfect support line from a Jack Goodhue break to score near the posts.
7 Dillon Hunt (Highlanders)
Has been one of the players of the year for the Highlanders this season who have had Shane Christie, Dan Pryor James Lentjes sidelined through injury. A pest at the breakdown and got through another heavy workload on defence against the Force where he scored a deserved try supporting a big break from Rob Thompson.
8 Brad Shields (Hurricanes)
The ‘give Brad Shields an All Blacks call-up’ brigade was in full steam over the weekend as the Hurricanes loose forward was at his brilliant best against the Cheetahs. Thrived out in the wider channels on attack with his best play coming from a lovely show-and-go before putting Ben Lam away to score.