With the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign coming to an end when the Crusaders and Chiefs meet in the final this weekend, Christopher Reive hands out his season awards.
Coach of the Year
Clayton McMillan (Chiefs)
McMillan joined the Chiefs this season as an interim head coach inheriting a team who went winless in the inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa season. They got off to a bumpy start this time around, but turned things around before long and are now preparing to compete in the final. The Chiefs won an impressive five straight games during the season, with no blowout results - their largest winning margin was just six points – but the team played the full 80 with purpose under McMillan's watch and were rewarded with several late wins.
Rookie of the Year
Connor Garden-Bachop (Highlanders)
Garden-Bachop came into the season as a bit of a wildcard for the Highlanders; someone with plenty of talent but limited opportunities at provincial level due to injury. The young wing/fullback burst onto the scene this year, however, carving through opposing defences with his speed and skill. Playing under Tony Brown was a bonus for Garden-Bachop this season as he was given free licence to play what he sees from the expansive coach. Unfortunately, his season was ended prematurely due to injury, but Garden-Bachop made the most of his opportunities in impressive fashion.
* Highlanders flanker Kazuki Himeno was not eligible for this award. He's an international representative and the decision was made to only consider young players just making their mark on the professional game.
Most Improved Player
Leicester Fainga'anuku (Crusaders)
Perhaps for Fainga'anuku it was more a case of having extended opportunities to showcase his talents this season. Even so, the 21-year-old was among the standout performers among backs in the competition and Crusaders coach Scott Robertson opted to play him in the midfield at times in order to have him on the pitch. A wing by trade, Fainga'anuku runs the ball with intent, has great footwork and pace to beat his defender off the mark. He led the Crusaders in carries, and was among the competition leaders in defenders beaten and running metres.
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Defensive Player of the Year
Dalton Papalii (Blues)
With Sam Cane unavailable for the All Blacks later this year, Dalton Papalii has made his case for a shot in the No 7 jersey. The Blues openside flanker showcased the full array of his defensive talents this season, making 75 tackles, winning turnovers and remaining disciplined while doing so - Papalii won 10 turnovers while only conceding five penalties in his six appearances.
Most Valuable Player
Damian McKenzie (Chiefs)
Without McKenzie, there's no guarantee the Chiefs would be in the position they are now. With 98 points, the star fullback scored more than half of the Chiefs' season total of 187 and was the competition's leading scorer. McKenzie was back to his dynamic best through the 2021 campaign, running the ball with freedom, leading the attack and utilising his kicking game as required. But it was his late-game heroics that made him stand out above the rest. McKenzie controlled the narrative with his clutch goal-kicking late in games. While he might not have had the best passages of play leading up to his several match-winning shots at goal, he was clutch when the time came and personified value to his team.