With the Super Rugby Pacific squads announced, Christopher Reive highlights six players to keep an eye on in 2024.
There are several big names that won’t be around this season like Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Dane Coles, Shannon Frizell, Samuel Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and more, so there’s plenty of opportunity for people to put their names forward.
Simon Parker – loose forward, Chiefs
With Sam Cane taking up the option for a sabbatical, the Chiefs have a huge gap to fill on the openside. Samipeni Finau and Luke Jacobson will likely resume their roles wearing No 6 and 8 respectively, and Parker could be the man to join the loose trio – if he can stay healthy. Parker got the start in their final round-robin game last season and was impressive with a massive tackle count and good discipline. Ahead of last season, Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan mentioned Parker as a player to watch for the future. “He’s not a name that many people will be familiar with,” McMillan said, “but he’s a guy who, two or three years ago, was identified as a real talent and he’s had a horrid run of injuries over the past couple of years... he’ll be one to look out for.” Perhaps 2024 will be his year.
Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens – fullback/wing, Highlanders
Scouted by the New Zealand Sevens system before joining the Blues, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens heads south with an opportunity to make a name for himself in a new-look Highlanders team. The 22-year-old showed his speed and finishing abilities in limited opportunities on the wing for the Blues, but during the NPC campaign with Taranaki he showed that he can be a game-breaker from fullback. That will be the role he’s targeting, as the Highlanders’ No 15 jersey is vacant after the departure of Mitch Hunt. With damaging midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen ruled out of the Super Rugby season with injury, the side is going to need some strike weapons and Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens will have the chance to show he fits the bill.
William Havili – first five-eighths, Moana Pasifika
In 2023, Havili played exclusively at fullback for Moana Pasifika, but was the starting No 10 for Tonga during the Rugby World Cup. He started all four of Tonga’s pool games in the role and looked comfortable as he steered the ship. It appears that a new-look Moana Pasifika team will present a new challenge for Havili, who has been listed as a first five this year. If you can read into phrasing, the team’s media release saying incumbent No 10 Christian Lealiifano will be “returning alongside him to cover the first five-eighths position” seems to indicate Havili is going to be handed the reins in the Tana Umaga-coached team, so it will be interesting to see how he fills that role in a side that has seen a lot of player movement.
Asafo Aumua – hooker, Hurricanes
After splitting time with Dane Coles in 2023, Aumua is expected to take over in the No 2 jersey fulltime in 2024. Aumua has been a player on the radar of many since he made his All Blacks debut in 2017 in a non-test outing against the Barbarians. That came before he had made his Super Rugby debut, putting him in the spotlight. It wasn’t until 2020 that he got a run in a test match and he hasn’t played for the All Blacks since 2021. Next season will provide Aumua with the platform he needs to challenge for a recall to the international game as he should enjoy plenty of game time with Coles moving on. Aumua has always been an X-factor player with the ball in hand but has been let down at times by the more core elements of his role. Now expected to get a larger role, he’ll get a chance to show he can be reliable across the paddock.
Zarn Sullivan – fullback/first five-eighths, Blues
In a loaded backline, Zarn Sullivan has a chance to shine. Year after year, the 23-year-old has been consistently showing improvements, culminating in an impressive second half in last year’s campaign when he earned consistent time starting at fullback. With Beauden Barrett not in this year’s squad, there’s a vacancy in the No 10 jersey – with Sullivan and Stephen Perofeta the likely options, and the other playing fullback. Sullivan can be a spark for the Blues with his speed and skill, while he showed his playmaking vision during the NPC season at first five for Auckland. Wherever Sullivan is utilised this season, he’ll be an important cog in the Blues machine.
Zach Gallagher – lock, Crusaders
There are a few contenders to fill the Sam Whitelock-shaped hole in the Crusaders’ second row this year, but Zach Gallagher will be the prospect that most excites the local fans. Gallagher, who made his debut in 2022, was a frequent member of the matchday 23 this year with 10 appearances from the bench and one start. It would surprise no one to see Quinten Strange draw the starting role in Whitelock’s absence, however, Gallagher’s ability and work rate has shone in every chance he’s been given and he will challenge for that role. A highly touted young star, Gallagher will be well-placed to take another step in 2024, be it off the bench or in the run-on squad.
Christopher Reive joined the Herald sports team in 2017, bringing the same versatility to his coverage as he does to his sports viewing habits.