Five players to watch in 2018

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Friday, December 1, 2017    Campbell Burnes    Getty Images

Damian McKenzie
The 22-year-old, who showed his array of skills at fullback in black, will next season run the cutter for the Chiefs in the No 10 jersey.

He has played most of his schools and provincial rugby at pivot, but the 2018 Super Rugby campaign will present his case for higher honours as Beauden Barrett’s back-up. McKenzie has a conundrum. He was close to the best player in Super Rugby 2017, his brilliant counter-attacking lighting up the Chiefs’ offence, but most of his All Blacks’ game time was due to injuries to Israel Dagg and Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith’s sabbatical.

McKenzie’s versatility should make him a lock for an All Blacks’ match-day squad 23, but will the first 2-3 years of his All Blacks career mirror that of Beauden Barrett himself, a jack of all trades seeking to cement a starting berth?


Brodie Retallick
Opponents are on notice. The world’s best lock will be back in 2018 refreshed and ready to again strike fear in those who lurk on the wrong sides of rucks.

A family tragedy saw Retallick stay home from the northern tour. So his last Test outing was in the 57-0 drubbing of South Africa in September, in which he crossed for his third international try. That means he should be veritably champing at the bit when the Chiefs open the Colin Cooper coaching era on February 24, unlike perhaps some of his more jaded All Blacks colleagues.

Retallick loves cleaning out bodies, a function he performs with admirable vigour alongside his core tasks as a lock. But he possesses the subtle touches that set him apart. He would love nothing more than the taking the Chiefs back to the top before setting his sights on France and onto the Rugby Championship. You have been warned.

Jordie Barrett
Judging by his social media posts, in which he seems to be kicking like a dream, Jordie Barrett has not been idle in his recovery from shoulder surgery.

The 2017 season had seen him play way more Super Rugby minutes than most had envisaged, even after travelling as the All Blacks’ apprentice on the 2016 northern tour. We knew he had the skills to thrive, but his unflappable temperament, reminiscent of his brother Beauden or Dan Carter, meant that Jordie Barrett seemed unaffected by pressure. It allowed him to make a remarkably assured debut in the third Lions Test match. He had already wowed the fans with his play at fullback and even in the midfield for the Hurricanes, not to mention usurping big brother for custody of the kicking tee.

He looks set to slot nicely into a powerful looking 2018 Hurricanes back three and then back into black.

Asafo Aumua
Ball in hand, Asafo Aumua is a dynamo. That much is clear if you watched him embarrass normally sound defenders such as George Bridge and Declan O’Donnell during the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup for the Wellington Lions. Mind you, he did a fair impersonation of an Exocet missile in his debut season of 2016, crossing for six tries including a hat-trick on debut.

Steve Hansen brought him onto the All Blacks’ 2017 northern tour for his debut. The potential is clear, but the 2018 season will be instructional in measuring Aumua’s progress.

His throwing into lineouts is a clear work-on. Master that and he will be close to a complete, Dane Coles-like package. But the young man will first need to nose past the industrious Ricky Riccitelli to even make it into the Hurricanes’ bench. He has left behind the Under 20s, with whom he shone brightly, so 2018 looks set to be a steep learning curve for this young man.

Josh McKay
Josh McKay’s potential was obvious to the wider rugby nation in 2014 when he sliced up St Bede’s in a televised game for his Christchurch BHS First XV.

He was operating at first five then, but he had all the attributes to make it in several positions. Now the 20-year-old is seen as a skilful, resourceful outside back, and the Highlanders will make good use of him around Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo.

He scored six tries for the champion Canterbury side, so he knows how to finish, but he can create, he can tackle, and he strikes as a good young professional with a level head on his shoulders. His passion for the game is exemplified by his desire to pull on his Lincoln University Rams club jersey whenever possible.

McKay could easily be another Cantabrian who heads south for his Super Rugby and makes good.