With the Super Rugby season about to get under way and the warm up games already in full swing, we take a look at some of the players to watch in 2019. In a World Cup year like this there are limited spots available for the new talent in what should by now be a well settled international side. However, that also means that those players on the fringes will be playing harder and faster to get their hands on that plane ticket to Japan. New and old, here are the players to keep a close eye on this season.
- Leicester Fainga’anuku
This youngster, who will be donning the red and black of one of the most successful teams in world rugby, the Crusaders, is definitely the appropriate place to start. At 19 years old and weighing in at a whopping 109kg, we can expect this youngster to give opposition defences a handful going forward. From captaining his schools 1st xv in 2017 to making his debut in the Mitre 10 cup in 2018, this is a player ready for big things. He won’t have it easy making the starting 15 of this Crusaders team however as he will be competing with established customers in the form of; George Bridge, Manasa Mataele, David Havili and the ever present Israel Dagg. Make no mistake though that as the Kiwi’s wrap their all blacks in cotton wool before the World Cup, he will surely grab his chance with both hands.
- Akker van der Merwe
Better known as the ‘Angry Warthog’ this player represents the typical South African grunt you find amongst the forwards. After moving down to the coast from the Lions, Akker will be looking to show South African coach Rassie Erasmus that he deserves to play back up to behemoth Malcolm Marx at the World Cup. His high work rate and strength in the tackle make him a valuable asset to any team and the abundance of Springboks in the Sharks front row will do well to further his case for selection. Coming off a strong Currie Cup season all those at the Shark tank will be hoping he can transfer that momentum into a big 2019. As Rassie said, it will be important for him to secure a consistent starting birth at the Sharks in 2019 to bring him into proper World Cup contention.
- Richie Mo’unga
2018 was a fantastic year and aged just 24, New Zealand can rest easy knowing that their Fly-half factory is still producing optimally. Richie has the unfortunate predicament in that he is competing for an All Blacks place with not only Beauden Barrett but also Damian Mckenzie. However his exposure to test rugby in 2018 will have only ignited his hunger for more. You can expect him to add to his New Zealand Super Rugby Player of the Year award, a man of the match performance in the Super Rugby final and being capped in every test of the end of year tour with even stronger performances in 2019. This writer has no doubt that he wil prove invaluable to both the Crusaders and All Blacks in 2019.
- Solomon Alaimalo
Falling just shy of the 100kg mark and with youth still well in his favor, 2019 may just prove to be the year this flyer makes the big jump to the Black Jersey that he almost seems destined for. Coming off a massive season in 2018 where he lead the meters gained and clean breaks for a large part of the Super Rugby season as well as notching up an immense number of playing minutes by playing 8 consecutive 80 minute games. One can hope to see more of his barn storming runs and strength in the tackle as he fights off extremely stiff competition for one of the outside births. Time will tell if his high work rate pays off, but one can easily draw comparisons between him and Julian Savea who also shone for the All Blacks in the last World Cup. 2019 should see him easily adding to his 8 tries he scored in last year’s season and fans should be excited for what he brings to the chiefs backline especially as him and Damian Mckenzie link up on the counter attack.
- Etene Nanai-Seturo
Another Chiefs player to keep an eye on is the 19 year old mentioned above. In 2018 he played for the New Zealand 7s side which would only have added to this dynamic players attacking arsenal. 2019 sees him join the Chiefs Super Rugby Squad as a Wing and Full Back. Although he is likely to have a limited role in the early stages of the season, expect him to be more than willing to fill the big boots of Damian Mckenzie as he is rotated between 10 and 15 as well as rested for the World Cup. Etene is of a similar build to Damian and is electric when on the charge. With the size the Chiefs have available out wide he will surely be at home as he sets the back line alive on the counter attack. 2019 may not be his year for an All Blacks call up, but it will surely help his cause to have a big breakthrough season, as 2020 looms with new coaches and player transfers. Expect big things from this youngster.
- Ruhan Nel
After a long stint with the Blitz Bokke (2014-2018), Ruhan made the switch to the expanded game, joining the Stormers in 2018. Not all players manage this transition well as was seen with Seabelo Senatla however he seemed well accustomed to his role in the mid field and made a massive contribution to the Stormers late last year. Rassie Erasmus took notice fairly quickly and Nel found himself in the Springbok touring squad for the end of year tour. Although he wasn’t capped for the Springboks in 2018 the lessons learnt as part of the squad should set him up well for a strong 2019 season. Strong in the tackle and with a keen eye on defence, he will be relied on by his club this year to get them into the finals. The Springboks centers are hardly a settled combination and a big season from Nel could see him playing a role there in the Championship and World Cup thereafter.
- Pete Samu
The Samoan born player has done a lot of travelling and most notably was a solid figure for the Crusaders between 2016 and 2018. His high work rate and strength in the tackle make him a good work horse for any loose trio. 2019 sees him pulling on a Brumbies Jersey after being capped for the Wallabies as a late replacement for David Pocock against Ireland. The Wallabies are in desperate need of resurgence in their pack and a strong showing for the Brumbies in the Super Rugby Season could ensure this player a starting birth possibly alongside Hooper and Pocock heading into the World Cup. At 27 years old he also offers a maturity and experience that Australian rugby has been lacking and with the skills learnt in his years in New Zealand, he may just have more to show us in 2019.
- Madosh Tambwe
The Lions seem to have a way of producing talented wing after talented wing. 2017 saw them dish up Ruan Combrinck and Courtnall Skosan, 2018 saw Aphiwe Dyantyi stealing the show and all indications are that Tambwe will follow suit.
The player hailing from the Congo is no stranger to the try line as 2018 saw him score 4 tries against the Stormers, as he etched his name into the record books by scoring the fastest hat-trick in Super Rugby history (13 minutes, with his first try in the 53rd second of the game). If the youngster (21) keeps up with his energized performances and electric pace, he will be a tough customer to ignore going into the World Cup as tries are harder to come by with defences as well organised as they are in today’s game.
- Dane Coles
At 32 years old Dane is hardly a new player on the block. However those that recall his pace and proclivity for finding the try line prior to his injury strewn season in 2018 will be eager to see him return to the playing field for a strong showing this year. Arguably one of the most blessed hookers in the pace department and with 11 tries in the Black Jersey to his name, Steve Hansen will be looking to him for stability at the World Cup. There is no reason that he can’t achieve his nomination for IRB player of the year as he did in 2016 again this year, maybe even taking it a step further this time. With Ricky Riccitelli having had a massive 2018 season domestically and internationally, you can rest assured that the old guard will be pulling out all the tricks in the book this year.
- Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso
Although not a single player to keep an eye on here, the combination of these two players set the world alight in 2017 as they seemed to be in a two man competition for who could top the other for tries scored. They ended the season tied on 14 each. If these two can rediscover their combination and prowess on attack they will have an easy ride onto the All Blacks squad list for 2019. The strength and raw power of Laumape and the pace and vision of Aso is a deadly combination which has been seen previously in some of the world’s deadliest center combinations.
Ma’a Nonu (36) has returned to New Zealand and will be running out for the Blues in 2019. This player needs no introduction as the All Black centurion and two time World Cup winner is drumming up excitement in Auckland. The coaching staff have talked about his hunger for the jersey and his energy on the training field and now the fans will be waiting to see if the explosive player we all remember will be back at it in 2019. He may just form a deadly center pairing with Sonny Bill Williams and a strong showing from him well definitely lead to Steve Hansen taking note. He has won almost every completion in rugby but a possible third World Cup trophy may just be waiting for him.
Duane Vermeulen has returned to South Africa, this time for the Blue Bulls. No doubt a shoe in for the Bok number 8 jersey after his showings there in 2018, the fans in Pretoria will be hoping for a lot from the aptly named ‘Thor’. The Bulls have had a couple of horrendous seasons and Pote Human will be hoping that the experience of Vermeulen will finally settle the Bulls forward pack. The bulls have some pace to burn out wide this year and with Duane leading the charge up front we may just see the Bulls produce something more exciting than their one dimensional play from last year.
Image Credit: Maurice