Five rookies to star early in Super Rugby year

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 07:00 30/03/2014
Patrick Tuipulotu
Getty Images
FAB PHENOM: Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu has been one of the leading New Zealand rookies in Super Rugby.

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Every year Super Rugby throws up new talent. Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick and Liam Coltman are recent examples who stole the headlines. Liam Napier highlights five rookies on the rise this year.   

Patrick Tuipulotu (Blues)

Tall, mobile, and boasting a solid frame, Tuipulotu has all the attributes. You won't see him again for at least three weeks, while he overcomes a leg injury, but it is already evident the 21-year-old is Auckland's best locking prospect since Ali Williams. The try he set-up against the Crusaders - by plucking the ball out of the air from the kick-off and off-loading one-handed - highlighted his natural athletic abilities. Ball carrying grunt is another asset. A product of New Zealand schools and under-20s, Tuipulotu missed most of last year's NPC with two jaw operations. He was forced to consume meals through a straw but wasted no time regaining the weight, or form. Body position into contact is his biggest work-on - bending from such height (1.98m) can be difficult. Crucially, though, he gets off the ground quickly at lineout time and is also said to be easily coachable. Higher honours await.

Liam Squire (Chiefs)

Two years ago, Squire's world was torn apart by a knee operation. After a series of knockbacks - shoulders and elbows had also broken down - he considered giving the game away. Instead, he completely rebuilt his striking physical stature (113kg/1.96m) in the gym and, with the guidance of step-father Mike Fraser, renewed his drive. Squire first rose to prominence with Tasman, after transferring to the local Marist club from Manawatu, alongside locking brother, Daniel. Skilled with ball in hand, powerful and harnessing a willing attitude he made an immediate impression. Squire will take time to grasp the intensity and constant demands Super Rugby requires. Life among All Blacks is also something new. Already, though, management at the defending champions describe his talents as "special". The Chiefs have long been searching for a No.8 so the opportunity is his to take. At 23, Squire hasn't been rushed, either. With a continued level head, expect him to make the most of this second chance. 

Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders)

How the heck did the Blues let this dynamo go?

By now you must have seen his huge hit on All Blacks centre Conrad Smith. Well timed, and executed with precision. Smith's arms just saved him from a few broken ribs last week. That tackle, though, merely scratches the surface of Fekitoa's budding skills. His line-speed alone is a thing of beauty. Astonishingly, the abrasive centre couldn't get a look in at the Blues, his home franchise, last year. And so another talented Auckland-raised player was allowed to slip through. Fekitoa trekked south, leaving the Blues to play George Moala out of position in the midfield, and had his revenge. Emotion was vivid as he slammed the ball into the turf after carving up the Blues in week one. In terms of development, the move turned out to be a blessing. The 21-year-old would have again been on the outer at the Blues this year. At the Highlanders, his aggressive presence and line-breaking abilities have made him a permanent fixture. Ball security into contact was once a criticism but he's worked hard to eliminate those errors from his game. Continue on this path and the Tongan-born prodigy with an incredible back story is a strong contender for rookie of the year.   

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Simon Hickey (Blues)

Self-assured without a hint of arrogance; that's the wide-spread feedback on this grounded first five-eighth. It speaks volumes that Hickey is, once again, eligible to represent New Zealand at this year's under-20s World Cup on home soil. After assuming the problematic 10 jersey for the Blues he will be full of confidence at that level. Perhaps his mature, measured approach can be attributed to his cricketing talents - he scored multiple centuries and for two years running was New Zealand's best schoolboy batsmen. Don't be fooled by his diminutive stature (83kg), Hickey is not shy to stand up in weekly meetings and deliver the game-plan to his senior, more illustrious team-mates. That is, after all, what's required of a general. This year's opportunity arrived earlier than expected but Hickey, who can also cover halfback, has shown poise to land 56 points at 92 percent (before last night's game). He's also set-up two tries. His only faults to date have come on defence. He's missed five tackles, though not through lack of courage.

Kane Hames (Highlanders)

This time last year Hames' full-time job involved organising ripper rugby. Working as a resource development officer for the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union, he was content to pack down for the Tauranga Sports Club. One breakout season later and he's fast forging a reputation as a destructive scrummager. Hames is a rarity in the modern game - he didn't come through a glamour school or any age-grade ranks. At the start of last year he was a third-string prop. Injuries opened the door to professional rugby and the 25-year-old late bloomer hasn't looked back. In his debut season, Hames played every NPC match for the Steamers and, thus far, has nailed the loose-head role for the Highlanders. He's said to be pumping out impressive squat numbers and, as a man of Christian faith, it's no surprise those attributes have seen former All Black Brad Thorn take him under his wing. Many Tauranga youngsters, having been part of the ripper rugby scene, are now, thanks to Hames, loyal Highlanders followers. His biggest challenge to date? Adjusting to the icy Dunedin climate.

- Sunday Star Times

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