OPINION: There was plenty to like from the New Zealand teams in the penultimate round of Super Rugby's regular season.
The business end of the competition is almost here and these players in particular have lifted their games accordingly.
1. Ayden Johnstone (Highlanders) - The 22 year-old rookie held his own at scrumtime against a very experienced Bulls pack. Also made 11 tackles in a 60-minute shift.
One for the future.
2. Dane Coles (Hurricanes) - The 'Canes hooker again showed his trademark athletic speed and skill down the touchline, with two tries in 40 minutes off the bench. Needs to stay fit, if the Wellingtonians are a chance of winning the comp.
3. Ofa Tu'ungafasi (Blues) - Another 80-minute performance from the All Blacks tighthead. Doing a fair bit of work with ball in hand, alongside his strong defensive and set-piece duties.
4. Jackson Hemopo (Highlanders) - His brute strength and subtle skills were on show under the roof in Dunedin. He made some huge hits, big runs and nice offloads.
It's a shame he's heading offshore.
5. Sam Whitelock (Crusaders) - After a stop-start season, the 'Sader's skipper is finding his rhythm. The capitulation to the Chiefs stung and Whitelock set the tone for redemption beautifully.
6. Dalton Papali'i (Blues) - His yellow-card may've cost his team victory, but that was more of a team issue than Papali'i's problem. Was one of the few Blues to play with the intensity required.
7. Ardie Savea (Hurricanes) - He and Coles changed the game for the Canes, who were level at 10-apiece with the Lions, when the pair came on.
Savea made crucial turnovers on his own line and used Jantjes as a judder-bar to set up a try in another outstanding performance.
8. Luke Whitelock (Highlanders) – Was a man possessed in his 100th Super Rugby game that was also his last under the roof at Forsyth Barr. Is far more than the tradesman that he's pigeon-holed as.
Made 24 tackles, without a single miss.
9. Aaron Smith (Highlanders) - Any thoughts that Smith may've lost his mojo following his toilet tryst have been put to bed. He's back in career-best form, running the team from halfback on both attack and defence.
10. Richie Mo'unga (Crusaders) - Had the ball on a string on his home paddock, producing four brilliant try assists. The Rebels had no answer to his kicking game, which resulted in a lolly scramble of tries for the outside backs.
11. Brayden Ennor (Crusaders) - He might struggle to start in the playoffs, but Ennor's making a compelling case to be an All Blacks bolter.
Scored a hat-trick with some outstanding ball-handling and pure pace, and should've had four tries, if he hadn't botched his easiest opportunity of the night.
12. Ryan Crotty (Crusaders) - As far as milestone games go, the 150th for Crotty couldn't have gone much better. After struggling early with a wrist injury, the red-and-black stalwart played the full 80, and finished it perfectly with a try and a conversion.
13. Rob Thompson (Highlanders) - The most dangerous man on the paddock in Dunedin. Was into absolutely everything and was a handful for defenders, breaking through 10 tackles and making four clean-breaks.
14. Sevu Reece (Crusaders) - A hat-trick hero yet again for the Crusaders. Loves a chip and chase, and is constantly creating havoc for opposition defenses.
The in-form winger of Super Rugby and now the competition's leading tryscorer.
15. David Havili (Crusaders) - There's not a lot more Havili can do to break into the World Cup mix.
He's solid under the high-ball, always in position, shows a turn of speed when he needs to, and can pass and set up his outsides as well as anyone else in the country.
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