Players To Watch In The 2023 Super Rugby Pacific Competition

Players To Watch In The 2023 Super Rugby Pacific Competition

Super Rugby Pacific 2023 one player to watch from each team as the best players and teams from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands.

Feb 16, 2023 by Philip Bendon
Players To Watch In The 2023 Super Rugby Pacific Competition

The Southern Hemisphere’s premier provincial rugby competition is just around the corner as Super Rugby returns for its 27th season. 

Whilst the tournament format has significantly changed over the years, this year feels like more a throwback to the very early days. 

Initially, coming into existence as the Super 6 competition when three Kiwi provincial sides, two Australian states and the Fijian national team duked it out in 1992. 

Having now seen their South African counterparts depart for the Northern Hemisphere, the tournament is once again exclusively an Australian, New Zealand and South Pacific Islands competition. 

Once again, the tournament will see some of the best players in the world go head-to-head across 15 entertaining weeks of league action, followed by three knock-out rounds to decide the Champions. 

So, without further ado, let's dive into some of the most intriguing players who are going to be on display this season.

Darcy Swain – ACT Brumbies 

Wallabies enforcer Swain is one of the more intriguing forwards heading into this season’s Super Rugby Pacific season. The physically imposing secondrow had firmly established himself as the first choice under former Wallabies coach Dave Rennie. Swain comes into this season knowing he will need to be at his best to impress new international head coach Eddie Jones. The key to doing this will be remaining on the pitch. Fostering a reputation as a hothead, Swain will almost certainly face challenges from opponents hoping to get a reaction. Should he manage this element of his game, his physicality at the tackle point and ball-carrying ability will be a significant assets for the Brumbies.

Rob Leota – Melbourne Rebels 

Heading into his eighth season in Melbourne, Leota is hitting his prime years as a backrow player. Since he made his debut for the Wallabies in 2021, Leota has become one of the mainstays in the international set-up. Renowned as more of a work-horse style player whose value is dominating the tackle, winning turnovers and being solid in the set piece. Whilst try scoring isn't his best-known quality, the backrow has shown a knack for scoring at just the right time and will be an integral cog for the 2023 Rebels.

Mark Nawaqanitawase – NSW Waratahs 

An international bolter in 2022, Nawaqanitawase is arguably the Wallabies’ best backline player heading into 2023. A powerhouse winger with a knack for popping up all over the pitch, the 6’4” and 220lb winger is a scary prospect at just 22 years old. Looking slightly ahead to the international head season, his combination with Marika Korobiete and Tom Wright in the back three is simply mouth-watering. Should he continue his form from the Autumn Nations Series, the Waratahs flier could be the top try scorer this season. 

Jordan Petaia – Queensland Reds 

Another Wallabies young gun, Petaia, has long been heralded as the next big thing in Australian Rugby. Making his international debut as a 19-year-old in 2019, Petaia has accumulated 24 test caps and five international tries. Much has been expected of the utility back, who many argue has yet to find his best position. Having been utilised at wing, fullback and in the centres, Petaia has fallen victim to his versatility. As has been the case with many utility backs over the year, Petaia has found himself nailed on as the ideal number 23. Thus, this season provides the perfect opportunity to nail down his best position and, with it, a realistic chance to be a starter for the Wallabies come to the World Cup.

Izaak Rodda – Western Force 

A physical specimen who stands at 6’8” and 262lb, the Western Force star is back with a vengeance this season as he looks to break into the international set-up under new head coach Eddie Jones—having gathered just 25 caps since making his debut in 2017, primarily due to his time in the French Top 14 with Lyon. Rodda has all the makings of being a top-quality international second-row. Using his height to significant effect in the line-out whilst adding his considerable power to the scrum, Rodda offers Australian Rugby a great option to counter the influence of the sides they are likely to meet later this season. Before all of that, however, he will need to beat out at least one of Will Skelton, Nick Frost, Darcy Swain or Cadeyrn Neville. With this in mind, Force fans can expect a big season out of their enforcer in 2023.

Losefa Mafi – Fijian Drua 

Olympic gold medallist, Mafi is bizarrely one of the great unknowns heading into this season. Having been one of the very best talents on the 7s scene with Fiji, the winger would go on to win gold medals at both the 2020 Olympic Games and 2022 7s World Cup. Between those triumphs, Mafi switched his allegiance to Rugby League, where he signed a one-year deal with the North Queensland Cowboys. His time in the 13-man code would be short-lived as he switched back to Union when he joined the Fijian Drua for the 2022 season. As with almost every Fijian 7s player, Mafi is simply electric when given half a chance. Playing alongside several Fijian internationals this season could see him elevated to the international squad for the World Cup. 

Caleb Clarke – Auckland Blues 

Firmly entrenched as a first-choice star for the All Blacks heading into this season, Clarke is one of most physically imposing wingers in the international game. Famous for his powerful runs, exceptional offloading ability and ground-burning pace, the Blues player has the potential to be one of the biggest stars of this season. Playing alongside several front-line All Blacks will only contribute to his dominance this season as he looks to reaffirm his grip on the Black number 11 shirt. 

Will Jordan – Crusaders 

Perhaps the most silky-smooth fullback in the game, Jordan is the reincarnation of All Blacks legend Christian Cullen. Seemingly able to glide through contact, Jordan rarely finds himself on the end of a hefty tackle as he evades defenders seemingly at will. Possessing a similar calm, controlled yet determined demeanour, the Crusaders fullback is arguably the best New Zealand prospect since the great Dan Carter. Simply put, there is not enough hyperbole in the English dictionary to describe just how much potential the 24-year-old possesses. 

Damian McKenzie – Chiefs 

A candidate for comeback back player of the year, the diminutive fullback-cum-flyhalf is yet another versatile playmaking option available to the All Black selectors this season. Having witnessed McKenzie's brilliance during his outing for the Barbarians against English Premiership side Bath, I can confirm he remains one of the game’s truly elite players. At 27 years old, the Chiefs wunderkind will be desperate to break back into the All Black squad. Where he will play for the Chiefs remains to be seen. Looking at things from a wider lens, Flyhalf would appear to be an area for concern for the All Blacks, given a slight lack of depth behind incumbents Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga. Therefore, it would not be shocking to see him get some game time in the pivot position as the season progresses. 

Ardie Savea – Hurricanes 

Simply put, Savea is perhaps the one player that the All Blacks cannot do without in 2023. A destructive runner, a menace at the breakdown and a sublime line-out operator, the days of being Julian’s little brother are long gone. Such has been the consistency of the 29-year-old that he is now rightly regarded as one of the front runners for the All Blacks captaincy this season. If not the best backrow player in the world, he is undoubtedly in the top three alongside the Irish duo of Josh van der Flier and Caelen Doris. 

Connor Garden-Bachop – Highlanders 

The latest in a long line from three of Rugby’s most influential families, the 23-year-old winger comes from a family that has produced seven international sportspeople. Included in this long list are cousin and former All Black Aaron Mauger, former Hurricanes player brother Jackson, former All Black and Japan international uncle Graeme, basketball, hockey and Rugby international mother Sue and former All Black father, Stephen. Entirely on the list, no doubt, and Connor looks like the next family star. 

Tima Fainga’anuku – Moana Pasifika 

This season, a near carbon copy of his younger All Black brother, the Tongan international, is one to watch. Having come through the New Zealand Rugby age grade and 7s system, Fainga’anuku’s decision to represent Tonga internationally was a significant coup for the Island nation. Getting six international caps in 2022, Fainga’anuku confirmed that he is firmly in Tonga’s World Cup plans. Similarly to his brother, Fainga’anuku uses his significant size and pace to dominate opponents in the wider channels. His match-up with his brother when the Pasifika clash with the Crusaders will make for an interesting subplot.

Written by Philip Bendon