Young guns set to storm in Super Rugby

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 11:03 03/02/2013
Ardie Savea
Photosport
ONE TO WATCH: Ardie Savea is already stepping out of the shadow of older brother Julian.

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With the Super Rugby season kicking off in a matter of weeks, here's a look at five young players set to make a big impact.

Blues: Charles Piutau
Age: 21
Position: Fullback
Weight: 95kg
NPC caps: 19

It's no surprise Charles Piutau was a contender for NPC player of the year.

A product of Wesley College, where Jonah Lomu and Sitiveni Sivivatu were refined, Piutau could be the  school's next gift to New Zealand rugby.

Called in as a late replacement for the final two games of Blues' disastrous campaign last year, the 21-year-old made the step up look easy as he sparked a malfunctioning backline.

After Isaia Toeava's departure, expect to see Piutau nail down the fullback role in John Kirwan's side, though, it hasn't long been his position of choice.

His lethal step, ability to spot and explode through half gaps with deceptive strength, and those twinkling feet were founded on the wing, with Tongan and New Zealand age-grade teams.

Two seasons with Sevens guru Gordon Tietjens also enhanced confidence to kick start his swift promotion.

Kirwan recounts a tale from this year's preseason of Piutau catching a pass in one hand and making a seamless transfer for a left foot chip.

A promising talent is underselling him. Kicking accuracy from the back and decision-making under pressure will be tested, possibly exposed at times.

But by season-end, after being under the watchful gaze of Kirwan, Mick Byrne and Graham Henry, Piutau could again feature in Steve Hansen's discussions.

Highlanders: Jason Emery
Age: 19
Position: Midfield
Weight: 88kg
NPC caps: 10

Small in stature; big on promise.

A pint-sized prodigy of strong sporting stock, Jason Emery never dreamed his Super Rugby debut would come this soon.

The former Palmerston North Boys' High School captain was signed by Manawatu while still at school - for good reason - and grew up idolising Ma'a Nonu.

After both were ironically snapped up by the Highlanders, Emery was star-struck, too nervous to talk to the All Blacks second five-eighth.

When he builds up the courage, the age-grade star couldn't ask for a better point of call for insight.

The 19-year-old, second cousin of rugby league great Stacey Jones, is competing for a place with Shaun Treeby and will be one of the smallest midfielders in the competition, but don't be surprised by his evasive, heady qualities, and rare kicking vision.

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While he looks set for more game-time than expected in his rookie season, due to Tamati Ellison's injury, Emery is a long-term project who can also slot in at first-five.

His diminutive stature will be tested, particularly on defence, but evidence so far suggests he has the potential to make a promising fist of his maiden campaign in the deep south.

Crusaders: Dominic Bird

Age: 21
Position: Lock
Weight: 112kg
NPC caps: 13

No-one could accuse Dominic Bird of being over-eager.

After two seasons in the Crusaders' wider training group, essentially serving an extended apprenticeship, most would jump at the chance to join another side's main squad.

The red-and-blacks sure made him bide his time. In 2011, Bird only enjoyed 10 minutes during the entire NPC season.

So when Blues coach John Kirwan attempted to lure the 2.06m second-rower to Auckland over breakfast this year, most suspected it would be a done deal.

Instead, Bird knocked back the offer and was, finally, rewarded with a call-up to Todd Blackadder's squad.

Hailing from a sheep and beef farm in Waipukurau, Hawke's Bay, where he was a keen motor-cross rider, Bird's decision was mature.

He felt learning his craft from All Blacks Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano and the experienced Tom Donnelly was more valuable.

Long-term vision, rather than short-term gain.

It's the sort of decision that could pay off for the highly-touted lineout technician.

After all, it would only take one injury for Bird to be thrust into the tall timber limelight.

This time last year we hadn't heard of Brodie Retallick. And there is room for another locking candidate.

Chiefs: Bundee Aki
Age: 22
Position: Second five-eighth
Weight: 92kg
NPC caps: 20

He's not a like-for-like replacement, but in Bundee Aki, the Chiefs feel they can cover Sonny Bill Williams' absence.

Don't be surprised to see Richard Kahui - fitness permitting - carry the lion's share of Williams' duties. Inside oil suggests the recovering All Black will switch roles on defence and attack this year.

That will leave Aki and Wellington's Charlie Ngatai to contest the vacant No 12 jersey.

Under Tana Umaga's guidance in Pukekohe, Aki flourished as Counties Manukau surged to the NPC championship title.

Out of Manurewa High School, Aki is confident, grounded, and should be comfortable at this level.

The father-of-two - Armani and Adrianna - appreciates life outside of rugby, having taken a year off to work in a bank and support his young family.

Few players of his age have that experience behind them.

Pace and deft footwork are features of his budding talents.

After ballooning on a diet of corned beef, taro and chop suey during the offseason, Aki is back in shape and has the inside running to partner Kahui in a dangerous midfield combination. Watch this space.

Hurricanes: Ardie Savea
Age: 19
Position: Flanker
Weight: 97kg
NPC caps: 10

Unstoppable from both centre and flanker at Rongotai College, where he was head boy, Ardie Savea is possibly the most exciting prospect of 2013.

In his first year out of school, the explosive talent set the NPC alight in his debut season with pure displays of pace and power.

Accompanied by a handy offload and lightening step that, one on occasion, left former All Black Rudi Wulf for dead, the-19-year-old has a rare skill set. Any wonder he's already drawn comparisons to legendary flanker Michael Jones.

While rugby prowess came naturally to older brother, All Blacks wing Julian, Ardie is said to have obtained similar speed and stronger work ethic, having been devoted to the gym before and after classroom requirements. It's clearly paid off.

With damaging leg speed, anticipation and inherent support play instincts; openside flanker is his natural position.

While he starts the season behind Karl Lowe and the injured Jack Lam, he won't be deprived a chance. Mark Hammett must be champing at the bit to unleash this kid.

Adjusting to the physical rigors Super Rugby demands is a challenge for all young players, but there seems little doubt Ardie will make his mark and, potentially, follow in his brother's footsteps.

Need we mention Richie McCaw is on holiday?

- Stuff

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