Brett McKay: Five young Super Rugby stars to watch in 2016
By Brett McKay
In its two short seasons, the National Rugby Championship has already shown itself to be the domestic proving ground for the best of Australia’s club and fringe Super Rugby players.
Where for years the gap between Premier and Super Rugby around the country appeared too large, the inclusion of the NRC has completed the elite development pathways. An Australian club player being picked up by an NRC side now knows that a good showing will get him noticed by the five Super Rugby franchises, and likewise, those in the Super Rugby system are using the NRC as a proper finishing school.
Here are a few around the country ready to announce themselves in the best provincial rugby competition in the world.
Jono Lance: Eastern Suburbs / NSW Country / Western Force
The 2015 NRC Player of the Series, Lance heads west for his third stint at Super Rugby. After debuting for the Queensland Reds in their Championship year of 2011, Lance played 21 games over three seasons before heading south to the Waratahs in search of opportunity. Another 13 games across two injury-punctuated years saw Lance sign with the Force, but the 2015 NRC season represented his first real chance to shine at a national level.
And shine he did. Finally fit and injury-free for an extended period (or as injury-free as the modern player gets), Lance was outstanding for the NSW Country Eagles, leading them around the park from no.10 with aplomb. His superb defence solidified the Eagles’ midfield, and he combined very well with Randwick playmaker David Horwitz at inside centre, to play into the attacking instincts of the Eagles’ outside men. Lance also kicked at 83% for the tournament; he provided absolutely everything he could on the field to push Country into the finals, which they narrowly missed.
Lance’s NRC showing would’ve been music to the ears of Western Force fans, for whom Lance had signed in early 2015. Along with ex-Stormers and former Springbok flyhalf Peter Grant, Lance will be charged re-sparking the misfiring Force attack from recent seasons, while also shoring up the midfield defence. Who plays at 10 might be Michael Foley’s biggest conundrum this season, but either way, the Force need to get back on the front foot in attack in 2016. Lance might just be the perfect man for the job.
Reece Hodge: Manly/ North Harbour Rays / Melbourne Rebels
Another player whose Super Rugby future was mapped out before the NRC kicked off last year, Hodge was unveiled as a Rebels recruit only days before the first round the domestic competition and then spent the next nine weeks showing us what the Rebels saw in him.
His utility value was obvious. He’d played a bit of 10 and a lot of 12 coming through the ranks at Manly, but North Harbour coach Geoff Townsend saw the immense potential of Hodge’s speed in open space and his prodigious kicking boot – this wind-assisted 76m monster still astounds me (click here) and played him at fullback.
And that obviously impressed Tony McGahan down in Melbourne too, because Hodge heads into the 2016 season listed as a fullback, after spending some time on the left wing during the trials as well. McGahan has singled his new recruit out this week, too, suggesting Hodge has “had a really good pre-season and has looked like he’s been training there for a lot longer than the last 10 weeks.” Keep an eye on him in 2016.
Allan Alaalatoa: UC Vikings / ACT Brumbies
A successful NRC season converting from tighthead prop to loosehead prop alongside Brumbies teammate and Test veteran Ben Alexander, Alaalatoa is now set to deputise for Wallabies loosehead Scott Sio in the no.1 jersey.
After debuting in the 2014 finals, Alaalatoa added another dozen Super caps to his name last season, and hopes to use his second full season in professional rugby to properly establish himself as one of the better young scrummaging props in the country. Already he’s claimed something of a scalp, making short work of Paddy Ryan in an early trial game, which has since seen the Waratahs play Ryan at loosehead.
Alaalatoa seems to have added a bit of bulk to his frame this season, though he’s still listed at last year’s 120kg. Surprisingly mobile, Alaalatoa likes to find the odd sniff of space, and can get an offload away in traffic, too. At just 22, and with the ability to learn from a couple of Wallabies ahead of him, as well as renowned scrum junkie, set-piece coach Dan Palmer, it really shapes as a big year for the promising prop.
Jed Holloway: Southern Districts / Greater Sydney Rams / NSW Waratahs
He played the first of his four Super Rugby games three seasons ago, but Jed Holloway has been given first crack at the Waratahs no.8 jersey in 2016. It may well have always been Darryl Gibson’s plan once Wycliff Palu announced his Japan plans last year, but when that deal fell though and Palu signed another one-year deal, Gibson’s plans were complicated.
As it turns out, Palu will miss at least the first game, and Holloway gets the opportunity.
And he might be excused for wondering what’s taken so long. A Shute Shield Grand Final captain at 22 (he’s still not 24, and the Greater Sydney Rams captain for both seasons to date, Holloway has been starring at NRC level consistently and has a canny knack of scoring tries from a way out.
Henry Taefu: Brisbane City / Queensland Reds
Coincidentally, Taefu and Holloway were Rams teammates in the 2014 NRC, before Brisbane City realised what they’d missed and locked the Sunnybank centre down for the 2015 season. Taefu enjoyed the homecoming, starring in midfield with Samu Kerevi in City’s back-to-back Championship win.
A blockbusting, straight-running centre with a healthy habit of breaking the first tackle, Taefu’s pre-season form the Reds has been so strong that he’s in line to keep Kerevi in the no.13 jersey, which in turn will keep Karmichael Hunt at fullback – where he too starred in the NRC – and which will all likely see the current ‘Goru fever’ that’s sweeping Brisbane town dampened, as Japanese superstar fullback, Ayumu Goromaru, makes his Super Rugby debut from the bench.