It’s become an annual tradition for myself and Scott MacLean to pick over the bones of the Mitre 10 Cup season and come up with our team of the year. This season, it would have been easy to have just listed the Tasman Mako from 1-15 and be done with, as they went undefeated through the season to claim their maiden Mitre 10 Cup title. However, we felt there were a number of others worthy of recognition, so have made the hard calls to come up with our dream starting fifteen.
1. Karl Tu’inukuafe (North Harbour) – Probably unlucky not to be in Japan, after illness disrupted the end of his Super Rugby season. It didn’t show though, as he wrecked each and every opposing scrum (including Tasman’s), playing big minutes and showing some developed deft touches around the park as well. The scrum became a big weapon for Harbour, and had their lineout fired with the same consistency, they would surely have made the semifinals. Honorable mention: Aidan Ross (Bay of Plenty)
2. Ash Dixon (Hawke’s Bay) – A truly inspirational leader for the Magpies, as seen by their capitulation without him against Bay of Plenty. Scored plenty of tries at the back of the lineout drive, but was impressive all around the park as his side came within a game of promotion. His experience and leadership was invaluable as part of what was a mostly young and inexperienced Hawke’s Bay side. Honorable mention: Andrew Makalio (Tasman), Asafo Aumua (Wellington), Samisoni Taukei’aho (Waikato)
3. Sione Mafileo (North Harbour) – Across the other side of the destructive Harbour front row was Mafileo, who had by far his best season in the white, black and cardinal. A player who hasn’t really kicked on at Super Rugby level, he showed he was a class above most of the looseheads propping against him. Was more prominent around the park this season too, including an outrageous try saving tackle to deny Bailyn Sullivan in the thrilling win over Waikato. Honorable mention: Alex Fidow (Wellington), Tyrel Lomax (Tasman)
4. Pari Pari Parkinson (Tasman) – The young Mako lock had a fantastic Mitre 10 Cup season as part of the impressive Tasman pack, as he built on a handful of Super Rugby appearances with the Highlanders. A dominant force in the air at both lineouts and restarts, Parkinson just eclipsed locking partner Quin Strange for a spot in our side. Both though have impressive futures ahead of them.
5. James Blackwell (Wellington) – The other lock was Mr. Consistent for Wellington. While most of his game in the past couple of seasons has been built around doing his core roles, Blackwell has started to become more prominent around the park with his carrying and physicality. Similar to Parkinson, he’s a player who has come on in leaps and bounds in recent times, and was able to use his Super Rugby experience to excel at the level below. Honorable mention: Quin Strange (Tasman), James Tucker (Waikato), Luke Romano (Canterbury), Michael Allardice (Hawke’s Bay)
6. Ethan Blackadder (Tasman) – The Mitre 10 Cup was a bit of a breakout party for Blackadder, who was in phenomenal form to start the season. With a wealth of loose forward class and experience in the squad, his irresistible form meant that one of Jordan Taufua or Liam Squire was generally consigned to a role off the bench. Cruelly, he missed the final with injury, but that wasn’t enough to keep him out of our side. Honorable mention: Dalton Papali’i (Auckland), Reed Prinsep (Canterbury)
7. Du’Plessis Kirifi (Wellington) – The second of our inspirational captains, Kirifi looks a young star in the making after this campaign. He proved himself an exceptional “follow me” type leader for the Lions, marrying the defensive and breakdown work you’d expect from an openside with supreme physicality and the knack for the big, timely play. Surely on this form must start in the 7 jersey for the Hurricanes, with Ardie Savea shifting positions. Honorable mention: Billy Harmon (Canterbury), Sione Havili (Tasman), Mitchell Karpik (Bay of Plenty)
8. Liam Squire (Tasman) – The reasons for him playing Mitre 10 Cup and not in Japan are well known, but Squire certainly didn’t shirk his responsibilities with the Mako. Enjoying his rugby, he threw himself into everything with the kind of ferocity that was missed in Yokohama, and his early season form in particular was part of the reason Tasman were so successful. A fine way for him to end this chapter of his career. Honorable mention: Gareth Evans (Hawke’s Bay), Luke Whitelock (Canterbury)
9. Folau Fakatava (Hawke’s Bay) – Still just a teenager, Fakatava was sensational for the Magpies on their run to the Championship final. A halfback that loves to play the game at pace, he formed a fantastic combination with his ex-Hastings Boys’ halves partner in Lincoln McClutchie. The Highlanders saw the potential in him to give him three appearances this year, and there should be plenty more to come. Honorable mention: Jamie Booth (Manawatu), Bryn Hall (North Harbour)
10. Mitchell Hunt (Tasman) – Hunt has given us glimpses of his ability over seasons past, whether at this level or with the Crusaders, but with Richie Mo’unga blocking his path at Super Rugby (and now probably Josh Ioane at the Highlanders), Hunt hasn’t been able to kick on. This season though, he was instrumental in Tasman winning the Premiership, controlling play well with his kicking game and unleashing a potent backline when supplied with front foot ball. Was assured in the final too, creating an early try, while ticking the scoreboard over off the tee. Honorable mention: Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington), Lincoln McClutchie (Hawke’s Bay)
11. Joe Ravouvou (Bay of Plenty) – With some sensational finishing, ended the season with 8 tries from just 9 games, rounding into form at the back end of the season to help the Steamers earn promotion. The All Blacks 7s star looks to be thriving after making the trip south from Auckland, with regular game time taking his game to the next level. Honorable mention: Leicester Faingaanuku (Tasman), Salesi Rayasi (Auckland), Mark Telea (North Harbour)
12. Ngani Laumape (Manawatu) – There was little debate about this one. Squeezed out of the All Blacks squad for the World Cup, Laumape seemed on a mission to let everyone know a mistake had been made. Tormented Canterbury in a famous upset win for the Turbos, but was sadly unable to haul them any higher than a semifinal spot as his campaign ended in injury. Honorable mention: Alex Nankivell (Tasman), TJ Faiane (Auckland), Danny Toala (Hawke’s Bay)
13. Quinn Tupaea (Waikato) – There weren’t too many standout candidates at centre, but Tupaea gets the nod after starting the season in outrageous form. He looked like he could carve up backlines at any moment he decided, growing in confidence on the outside of veteran Dwayne Sweeney. His form dipped at the back end of the season, but he was still the pick of the centres overall. Honorable mention: Tumua Manu (Auckland), Sean Wainui (Taranaki)
14. Will Jordan (Tasman) – Spent a bit of time at fullback as well, but in either spot was able to show his class on the end of a potent backline, bagging 8 tries. Looks a real talent and could be a bolter for a black jersey before too long. Honorable mention: Emoni Narawa (Bay of Plenty), Wes Goosen (Wellington)
15. Josh McKay (Canterbury) – Probably the toughest call of all to make was at fullback, where three individuals all had strong cases. McKay edges it out after being the leading try scorer in the competition, with 11, despite Canterbury’s struggles in a less than vintage season. His pace caused havoc for opposing backlines, but he also had a knack of popping up in the right spots to finish movements. David Havili was tough to leave out, as was Chase Tiatia, who wasn’t helped by splitting time between 15 and 12. Honorable mention: David Havili (Tasman), Chase Tiatia (Bay of Plenty)
Least Valuable Player: The NZRU for their refusal to do anything about jersey clashes in this competition. If Thames Valley can arrange a change strip for a Heartland clash, there’s no excuse for the number of games in this competition where teams where similar kits.
Let us know your thoughts. Who was hard done by? Who did we miss out? Who is lucky to be there?
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