Just over a week ago, 43-year-old Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their second Super Bowl title in his first season with the side. While NFL (like rugby) is a team game, Brady’s ice-cool temperament shaped by a 20-year career at the elite level helped guide the ‘Bucs’ to the crown and gave every player on the roster belief they were good enough to take their place in history.
Arguably outside of Test rugby there is no rugby competition in the world more competitive or pressure filled than Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Just think about it. Ten weeks of punishing New Zealand derbies topped off by a final between the top two placed teams. Even a Rugby World Cup doesn’t produce that kind of intense competition week after week. Players will be pushed to the brink both mentally and physically. There is no let-up in Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa.
But at the end of the rainbow lies the holy grail – Tū Kōtahi Aotearoa (the Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa trophy).
In a competition like this, experience matters. Just like how Tom Brady led the Buccaneers to an unlikely title almost 20 years after their first, whoever lifts Tū Kōtahi Aotearoa will have done so with an incredible contribution from their senior players and inspirational leaders.
Let’s take a look at some of the experienced players who could play the ‘Tom Brady’ role for their team in 2021. Their experience, poise and mana will be invaluable in a competition as tough as Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Patrick Tuipulotu (Blues)
If we step back in time 12 months you may not have seen Patrick Tuipulotu appear in a list like this, but a year is a long time in rugby. In that time, Tuipulotu has blossomed from a quiet workhorse for the Blues to one of the most inspirational leaders in the country. As captain of the Blues, Tuipulotu led the side’s resurgence from perennial underachievers to genuine title contenders. Many captains have been and gone for the Blues since they won their last Super Rugby title in 2003, but none managed to galvanise the side like how Tuipulotu did. The 28-year-old was rewarded with the captaincy of the North Island side in the historic Steinlager North v South clash in September 2020 and took his place as one of the key leaders in the All Blacks later in the year. There’s a feeling we only just got a glimpse of the Blues potential in 2020. If they are to realise that potential in 2021 and claim a long-awaited title then Tuipulotu will be central to that success.
Super Rugby debut: 2014
Super Rugby caps: 80
Angus Ta’avao (Chiefs)
With a Super Rugby career spanning 10 years and encompassing over 100 games across three clubs, there are not many players in the competition who boast the breadth of experience of Chiefs prop Angus Ta’avao. Ta’avao first made his mark for the New Zealand Under 20s in 2010 and honed his game across stints with the Blues, Waratahs and Chiefs before making his long-awaited All Blacks debut at the age of 28 in 2018. Ta’avao knows firsthand the benefits of patience, perseverance, and hard work and will pass those lessons onto the younger members of the squad. An absolute powerhouse in the tight exchanges, the 124kg strongman is also cool under pressure and will provide a calming influence when the going gets tough.
Super Rugby debut: 2012
Super Rugby caps: 106 (49 for the Blues, 22 for the Waratahs and 35 for the Chiefs)
Dane Coles (Hurricanes)
Dane Coles knows what it takes to win titles. In 2016, he captained the Hurricanes to their first (and only) Super Rugby title. Now aged 34, Coles is still at the top of his game but holds no illusions that this could be his final season in the yellow and black with his contract finishing at the end of 2021. While Ardie Savea will wear the captain’s armband this season, Coles will play a huge role in inspiring the team on to glory. Born and raised in the Hurricanes heartland of the Kapiti Coast, Coles has immense pride in the jersey and will provide mentorship to the younger players in the squad. If 2021 is indeed the final year in the Hurricanes for Coles then there will be no better way to finish his time than with a title.
Super Rugby debut: 2009
Super Rugby caps: 119
Joe Moody (Crusaders)
The Crusaders are a team that has built a legacy on having inspirational leaders at their helm. Think McCaw, Read and Whitelock in recent times. While those big names lead from the front and are the ones pictured with championship titles in the air, it is the Crusaders quiet achievers who are just as important. None are more crucial to the Crusaders success than cornerstone prop Joe Moody. The 32-year-old former amateur wrestling champion is poised to reach 100 games for his beloved team this season. He is a no fuss player – the type you want when the going gets tough. Moody puts his head down and gets the job done. This is the type of example that flows onto the rest of the squad and ensures that everyone gives their all for the jersey.
Super Rugby debut: 2013
Super Rugby caps: 94
Aaron Smith (Highlanders)
It is true that it takes 23 players to win a rugby game, but if there was one exception to the rule it would be Aaron Smith. Time after time, the live-wire halfback has lifted the Highlanders from positions of despair to victory with his infectious energy and never-say-die attitude. Now aged 32 and with 150 Super Rugby caps under his belt, Smith shows no signs of slowing up. In fact, he appears to be getting better with each passing year. Smith’s work ethic and continual quest for self-improvement are virtues that will motivate his teammates onto greater deeds. With Smith on the field for the Highlanders you know one thing is for sure. A game is never lost until the final whistle goes.
Super Rugby debut: 2011
Super Rugby caps: 150