Since the beginning the Super Rugby season, Radio Sport Rugby Editor Nigel Yalden has presented his NZ Form Team of the Week for public consumption/dissection/contemplation.
As we are about to move on from the midway point of the competition, we decided to collate his selections from the previous nine weeks. In the situation where there were an equal number of selections in one position, Yalden was given the final say on who would make his NZ Form Team of the First Half of Super Rugby.
Note - the figure shown are the number of selections; SC = selectors choice
1. Joe Moody (Crusaders -2 SC)
His strength at scrum time and the underappreciated skill of lifting at the lineout are his strong points, but Moody has added an always improving ability around the field to round out of his game. In Moody and Owen Franks, the Crusaders have two of the best cleanout exponents in New Zealand.
** Mitchell Graham (Chiefs) & Reg Goodes (Hurricanes) also earned 2 selections
2. Dane Coles (Hurricanes - 3 SC)
Has only played the five games due to an injury delaying his start to the season, but his high level of play upon his return is what we have come to associate with the upper echelon of All Blacks when they return from a lengthy break (formerly McCaw, currently Read, Retallick, Whitelock). Captaincy also seems to agree with him too.
** Codie Taylor (Crusaders) also earned 3 selections
3. Owen Franks (Crusaders - 5 SC)
Deserves more credit for his play than he gets. He is not fleet of foot like Charlie Faumuina, but not many if any props are. But Franks does have vastly under-appreciated ball skills and a massive work-rate for the heavy contact areas. His scrummaging has been exceptional; his cleanout work just as powerful and he is one of the game's best lineout lifters.
My Forward of the First Half of Super Rugby
4. Brodie Retallick (Chiefs - 3 SC)
Missed a month with a broken rib but has made the Form Team of the Week three times in just four games. He is the total package as a rugby player. Retallick is a wonderful mix of strength, athleticism, skill, endurance and intelligence, with the latter being arguably the strongest of all those assets.
5. Michael Fatialofa (Hurricanes -2 SC)
Is the front runner for rookie of the honours. Remember this young man was a member of the wider training group at the start of the season, yet now would be one of the first names that Coach Chris Boyd writes down each week. He just gets on the field and goes and goes and goes. He's been a reliable lineout target, ploughs into rucks, mauls, opposition defensive lines and oncoming ball runner with intent and accuracy.
** Sam Whitelock (Crusaders) Scott Barrett (Crusaders) & Mark Abbott (Hurricanes) also earned 2 selections
6. Elliot Dixon (Highlanders - 3 SC)
Has maintained his outstanding 2015 form throughout the first half of 2016. There was very little to pick between Dixon and Jordan Taufua though. Both have been that abrasive force that most want to see from a blindside flanker; strong in the tackle, powerful in the carry and high in work rate. The difference came down to Dixon's better skills at the lineout, though Tuafua is getting more opportunities in this area. Dixon is in the top 25 for lineouts won this season (18) but more significantly is second in lineout steals with seven.
** Jordan Taufua (Crusaders) also earned 3 selections
7. Sam Cane (Chiefs - 4 SC)
Started the season slow by his standards but is well and truly up to speed now. Second only to the human tackling machine that is Force captain Matt Hodgson (Cane has 91 to Hodgson's 109) Cane, like the man he replaced as Chiefs co-captain Liam Messam, is leading with his defence and like Messam, the rest of his game flows from there. We know he can get around the field at good clip and his excellent support play is evident by the fact that he is tied with Brumbies captain Stephen Moore for the most off loads by a forward this season. New Zealand is stacked with openside talent - Ardie Savea, Matt Todd, Shane Christie, and Blake Gibson prior to his injury - and Cane has had to elevate his game as a result.
8. Kieran Read (Crusaders -3 SC)
Is playing with a freedom and confidence that is incredibly heartening, given he will be the All Blacks captain come June. He's looking more and more like the guy that was the best player in the world, and convincingly so, back in 2013. He's not back at that level yet, but he not far off.
** Michael Leitch (Chiefs) also earned 3 selections
9. Aaron Smith (Highlanders - 4 SC)
Is the best halfback in the world showing everyone in Super Rugby why he is the best halfback in the world on a weekly basis.
10. Lima Sopoaga (Highlanders - 5 SC)
Has taken his play up another notch from last year when he was the NZ Super Rugby Player of the Year. The best goal kicking first five of the All Black contenders (77 percent), Sopoaga's guiding his team around the field with aplomb with a mix of pin point tactical kicking, deft passing and, in recent weeks, judicious use on his running game.
11. Nemani Nadolo (Crusaders - 3 SC)
Is the most unique player in world rugby. So big, so powerful, pretty quick too, but also with some outstanding subtleties in passing and kicking for a man who could just rely on overpowering his opponents week in week out but doesn't. Nadolo is the best off-loader in Super Rugby with 17 in addition to being in the top 10 for carries (9th) metres made (7th) defenders beaten (6th) and line breaks (2nd)
** James Lowe (Chiefs) also earned 3 selections
12. Charlie Ngatai (Chiefs - 4 SC)
Was making rugby look easy prior to his injury. He was gliding through gaps, putting men into space outside their man with pin point passes, running great support lines, marshalling the defence, smashing metre eating punts with his prodigious right boot and just making really, really smart rugby decisions. I was little surprised to read that All Black coach Steve Hansen feels Ngatai has things to work on defensively, though I not going to argue with him as he knows a truck load more about rugby than I do.
13. Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders - 6 SC)
Has performed to a consistently high standard from week one, looking for the entire world like the heir apparent to Conrad Smith that he is. He still likes to push out of the line defensively, but he is doing so more with far better accuracy than previously and while he's not breaking the line as much on attack, he takes some stopping and is the 2nd best man in the tournament when it comes to offloads with 16. However it's his organisation and decision making that's the biggest positive as the international season looms.
My Back of the First Half of Super Rugby
14. Johnny McNicholl (Crusaders - 3 SC)
Struck a rich vein of form prior to and on the Crusaders trip to South Africa. He was assured under the high ball, a strong aspect of his excellent defensive play, and was running those catches back with effectiveness (top 10 in metres made) as we got to see the potential that many knew McNicholl to have.
15. Damian McKenzie (Chiefs- 3 SC)
Leads Super Rugby in points scored, tries scored, metres made (621) & defenders beaten (36). He's 2nd in carries (105), 3rd equal in line breaks (15) and 4th equal in offloads (14). When he gets the ball, I find myself shifting forward in my seat the way I used to when watching Christian Cullen play. His defensive and positional play is excellent, though he did get bumped off on occasions
** Ben Smith (Highlanders) also earned 3 selections
** Statistics via NZ Heralds Rugby Stats Centre
NIGEL YALDEN IS THE RUGBY EDITOR FOR RADIO SPORT & NEWSTALK ZB