1996: Christian Cullen (Hurricanes)
The 20-year-old fullback was a standout in an inconsistent Hurricanes team that only won three of 11 games in the inaugural season of Super Rugby. Cullen scored a team-leading seven tries with his length of the field effort in a 25-52 hiding at the hands of the Waratahs in Sydney a try that’s still replayed often. The Hurricanes quickly developed an enduring reputation for playing exciting and unpredictable footy with the ambition and talent of Cullen the best illustration of that character. Cullen would earn an All Blacks trial on the back of his Super Rugby form and scored three tries to earn an All Blacks debut against Samoa in Napier where he repeated that feat. He was even better in his next Test, scoring four against Scotland in Dunedin. Additionally, he scored 29 tries in 11 games for the All Black Sevens, including a yet to be surpassed tournament record of 18 tries at the Hong Kong Sevens where New Zealand beat Fiji 19-17 in the final.
2003: Joesevata Rokocoko (Blues)
Following in the footsteps of Fijian flyer Joeli Vidiri who won titles in 1996 and 1997, fellow Fijian-born wing Joesevata (Joe) Rokocoko made his debut for the Blues in 2003 at the age of 19. Rokocoko quickly announced himself as one of the most potent wings in the competition with six tries as the Blues won their third Super Rugby title. He carried his sensational form onto the international stage with an All Blacks record of 17 tries in the 2003 season. Rokocoko went onto play 96 times for the Blues, scoring 38 tries. Although Rokocoko remained a prolific try scorer until his retirement from rugby in 2019, he was arguably never more dangerous than his breakout season in 2003.
2012: Brodie Retallick (Chiefs)
Lock Brodie Retallick earned a contract with the Chiefs for the 2012 Super Rugby season after helping New Zealand win the World Under 20 Championship the previous year. He was a regular starter appearing in 17 out of 18 games as the Chiefs won their first title, trouncing the Sharks 37-6 in the final in Hamilton. His debut for the All Blacks was against Ireland on 9 June 2012, during their tour of New Zealand. Retallick started on debut, in a locking combination with Sam Whitelock. The All Blacks won the Test 42-10. Retallick appeared another 13 times as the All Blacks completed a perfect 14-0 season.
2015: Waisake Naholo (Highlanders)
You can’t hear Waisake Naholo’s name without wanting to sing the famous “WAI-SAKE NA-HOLO” chant. Born in Fiji, Naholo was only 18 when he made his provincial debut for Whanganui in the Heartland Championship in 2009. Although he played two games for the Blues in 2013, we are calling 2015 his genuine rookie Super Rugby season when he was picked up by the Highlanders following an impressive domestic season with Taranaki. Naholo was an instant cult hero for the Highlanders in 2015. The Highlanders won their first (and still only) title in 2015 with Naholo’s try scoring deeds and game breaking ability a key component in their success. Naholo finished the season with 15 tries, including one in the final against the Hurricanes. The flying wing was picked for the All Blacks soon after and went on to score 18 tries in 27 Tests.
2015: Nehe Milner-Skudder (Hurricanes)
We couldn’t produce a list of standout Super Rugby rookie seasons without including Nehe Milner-Skudder. The hot-stepping wing was barely known by fans at the start of 2015, but by the end of the year he was a Rugby World Cup winner. Milner-Skudder was a smash-hit in his debut season of Super Rugby. Playing on the right wing with Julian Savea on the left, the dynamic pair scored 12 tries between them as the Hurricanes made it through to the final. The exciting duo continued their form on the international stage where they started in the Rugby World Cup final triumph over Australia at Twickenham later that same year.
2016: Richie Mo'unga (Crusaders)
Richie Mo’unga announced his arrival on the domestic scene in 2015 when he made 10 appearances in helping Canterbury regain the NPC Premiership title. He was named in the 2015 Crusaders wider training squad but competing against All Blacks Daniel Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor saw no game time. In 2016, Mo’unga would gain a foothold on the ten-jersey. He started all 16 matches throughout the season which ended with the Crusaders losing 42-25 to the Lions in Johannesburg in the quarterfinals. Mo’unga scored 179 points, converting a record 41 of the Crusaders 50 tries. The pace, poise and tactical stewardship that has become the hallmark of the All Black was evident in 2016. Between 2017 and 2022 the Crusaders have won 86 out of 101 matches capturing the title every year. Mo’unga has scored over a century of points each season with 136 in 2017, 150 in 2018, 182 in 2019, 113 in 2020, 172 in 2021 and 124 last-season.
The full list of 2023 New Zealand rookies is*:
Highlanders (6): Cameron Millar, Fabian Holland, Luca Inch, Nikora Broughton, James Arscott, Will Tucker.
Crusaders (5): Christian Lio-Willie, George Bell, Noah Hotham, Taha Kemara, Macca Springer.
Chiefs (3): George Dyer, Jared Profitt, Peniasi Malimali.
Hurricanes (4): Jacob Devery, Peter Lakai, Riley Higgins, Daniel Sinkinson. 2
Blues (3): Josh Fusitu’a, Rob Rush, Caleb Tangitau.