16 Aug 2020

Super Rugby Aotearoa: The good, the bad and the ugly

12:28 pm on 16 August 2020

Analysis - OK, Covid got the final say, but looking back on the last 10 weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa you'd have to regard it as a roaring success.

Crusaders celebrate. Crusaders vs. Highlanders. Super Rugby Aotearoa. Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand, Sunday 9 August 2020. © Copyright image by Martin Hunter / www.photosport.nzn

The Crusaders celebrate winning the Super Rugby Aotearoa title. Photo: Photosport Ltd 2020

The circumstances of its conception were due to something we all wished never happened, but the makeshift competition inadvertently distilled what had been regarded as a bloated and unrelatable into a sleek, entertaining and rare commodity - kiwi teams ripping into each other week after week in a relentless rebirth of our national game.

But while Super Rugby Aotearoa may end up being a one off (sadly), here are some awards that recognise the highs and lows of this unique event:

Best team on the field: Crusaders

While it seems like a no brainer, it is worth remembering that the now 11 time Super Rugby champions were supposed to be in a rebuilding year after losing Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Owen Franks and Ryan Crotty in the off season.

If anything they got better, dropping only one game since lockdown and playing a typically dominant brand of rugby under coach Scott Robertson and winning the admiration of the rugby public until...

Worst team off the field: Crusaders

... they desecrated the Tū Kōtahi Aotearoa trophy the night they won it. And they broke lockdown rules.

Most vindictive gameplan: Hurricanes v Beauden Barrett

If the Blues star signing thought that Dane Coles bulldozing him and then forcing Barrett into a Hurricanes' celebration party against his will at Eden Park was as bad as it was going to get against his old team this season, he had another thing coming when the two sides next met in Wellington.

Unfortunately for the former Canes hero, that thing was Ngani Laumape, who not so subtly changed places with Ben Lam on attack to end up running straight at Barrett all night.

The result was Laumape burning past him to score on the way to a Hurricanes victory.

Best crowd: Eden Park

The 43,000 that flocked to Eden Park on a week and half's notice for the first game was an incredible sight, made all the better by continuing to support the Blues in big numbers for the rest of the season.

Here's hoping they turn out again in 2021.

Biggest form swing: Chiefs

It seems like an age ago now, but Warren Garland's Chiefs were sitting pretty before lockdown in March.

They'd beaten the Blues and Crusaders and were firming as real contenders for their first title since 2013.

Who knows what they did during lockdown but it clearly didn't do them any good, as they lost all eight of their games.

Sure, they had injuries, but contrast that to the Crusaders overcoming their loss of talent.

Now they have to start all over again without Gatland next year as he's back in the UK to coach a British & Irish Lions tour that may never happen, thanks to the Covid-19 situation in South Africa.

Biggest bummer: the refs

There were a series of shocking calls throughout the competition, but the worst was easily the directive from head office to have them attempt to play Beethoven's Ninth on their whistles for the first two weekends.

Most overqualified waterboy: Dan Carter

Dan Carter during a Blues Super Rugby training session as rugby training resumes after the Covid 19 lockdown. Alexandra Park, Auckland, New Zealand. 4 June 2020. © Copyright Image: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

Dan Carter never got to play for the Blues this season. Photo: Photosport Ltd

No one ever thought Carter was going to play a huge role in the Blues season, but seeing him pull on the jersey at least once would've been nice.

An untimely injury and general lack of bulk was what kept him on the sideline, so maybe he should've spent more time in the gym than kicking balls at the media cameras during training.

Best Barrett: Jordie

Scott never played due to a foot injury, so it came down to the two highlight makers.

While Beauden certainly didn't do much wrong in his debut season for the Blues, his absence at the Hurricanes meant his younger brother got given the keys to the whole backline.

Jordie put his foot down with easily his best season in Super Rugby, being heavily involved in everything and cementing his status as one of the world's premier long range goal kickers with a monster 60 metre penalty against the Chiefs.

Ironman of the season: Aaron Smith

This could've gone to any of the three All Black halfbacks, because TJ Perenara and Brad Weber routinely went close to or the full 80 minutes whenever they played.

However, Smith is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down as he closes in on his 32nd birthday, all the more remarkable considering he was essentially the difference between the Highlanders being reasonably competitive or getting hammered every week.

Smith was well rewarded with a win in his 150th match.

Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith during the 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa season.

All Black and Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith. Photo: Photosport

Forwards/Backs of the year:

Blues: Hoskins Sotutu, Rieko Ioane.

Chiefs: Pita Gus Sowakula, Sean Wainui.

Hurricanes: Ardie Savea, Jordie Barrett.

Crusaders: Codie Taylor, Richie Mo'unga.

Highlanders: Dillon Hunt, Aaron Smith.

Best lesson learned

That Super Rugby works best as a succinct local product, and people want to watch the NZ teams play each other without constant attempts to expand the competition to odd new places.

Oh wait, they didn't learn that after all.

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