After being the cream of the crop in 2016, the five New Zealand teams are there to be shot at in 2017.
With a British and Irish Lions tour potentially disrupting the five franchises, a repeat of four teams making the playoffs may not be repeatable, but there is enough talent littered around to make it five Kiwi wins in six Super Rugby seasons.
Defending champions ready to soar once again
Having captured their first Super Rugby title last season, the Hurricanes look well positioned for another tilt at the top with a plethora of All Black stars leading their charge. Beauden Barrett was the standout performer in 2016, and he will be joined in Wellington by younger brother Jordie who comes with huge expectations.
The squad is also full of All Black hopefuls who will be putting in big performances to stake their claim for starting spots against the British and Irish Lions. From TJ Perenara to the Savea brothers, and the captain Dane Coles, this squad has enough star-power to lead them towards another deep playoff run, something they managed to achieve last season without the mercurial Nehe Milner-Skudder who will return in 2017.
Victor Vito, Jason Woodward and Willis Halaholo are the biggest losses from the 2016 squad, with all three now impressing at their new clubs in Europe. Alongside the signing of the younger Barrett, head coach Chris Boyd has moved to strengthen his forward pack with Sam Lousi returning to New Zealand from the Waratahs, while Reed Prinsep will hope for increased opportunities having moved over from the Crusaders.
The strength of this team in 2016 was that a number of lesser-known players stepped-up to complement the household names and if the likes of Loni Uhila, Vaea Fifita and Ngani Laumape can push on once again it will considerably help the Hurricanes cause.
Prediction: Kiwi conference will always be tough to defend but confidence from 2016 should allow them do so. If Jordie Barrett makes an instant impact, the backline could be close to unstoppable on their day.
Pressure on Tony Brown to replicate success of departing head coach Jamie Joseph at Highlanders
After bringing the Highlanders their first ever Super Rugby championship in 2015, Jamie Joseph was something of a legend in Otago. Taking over in 2010, Joseph brought about a huge upturn in form for the franchise and now that he has moved on to coach the Japanese national side, former assistant Tony Brown has been tasked with leading the Highlanders in 2017.
Joseph has left a squad full of stars for Brown to utilise, with All Black regulars Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith all part of the backline alone. Liam Squire came into his own during his debut season at Forsyth Barr in 2016 after moving over from the Chiefs, while Elliot Dixon and Tom Franklin are each capable of taking their games to the next level.
In terms of player movement, there has been very little which will help Brown in his first season. Mark Reddish and Jack Wilson have moved on to play in the Aviva Premiership with Harlequins and Bath respectively, while prop forwards Ross Geldenhuys and Josh Hohneck have also moved on, with former-Chiefs prop Siate Tokolahi giving them an extra option in the front-row. Tevita Li has winged in from the Blues and will challenge Patrick Osborne for a starting position on the left-flank, while another former-Chief in Kayne Hammington looks set to back-up Aaron Smith after replacing departing nines Fumiaki Tanaka and Te Aihe Toma.
Lima Sopoaga is one of the most consistent kicking fly-halves in the competition, and with young centres Matt Faddes and Sio Tomkinson alongside the returning Richard Buckman, the Highlanders have a ton of options should injuries or international duty hamper their squad.
Prediction: Following two 11 win seasons on the bounce, the pressure is on new head coach Tony Brown to continue the success, and with the squad at his disposal they should claim a fourth successive playoff spot.
Injuries and big-name departures leave Chiefs in flux ahead of Dave Rennie’s final season
Another head coach who has brought consistent success to his franchise is Chiefs kingpin Dave Rennie. Five straight seasons in the playoffs, complemented by titles in 2012 and 2013 show why Rennie is so highly regarded and seen as a stunning capture for the Glasgow Warriors where he will take over after the 2017 Super Rugby season.
Rennie’s success has been built on an entertaining style which has seen the Chiefs become the most dangerous attacking force in club rugby. Players come and go, but the results remain the same and another offseason of major losses has been supplemented by the return of two Waikato favourites. Liam Messam tried his hand at making the Olympic Sevens last year and wasn’t seen until the back-end of the Super Rugby campaign, while Tim Nanai-Williams returns to the fold after a year in the wilderness.
Among the players to leave are Sonny Bill Williams, Pauliasi Manu and Augustine Pulu who have joined the Blues, while centre Seta Tamanivalu has jumped ship to join the Crusaders. The Chiefs were handed another blow on the eve of the season, with Brad Weber ruled out for the entire campaign after the scrum-half picked up an injury in the much-maligned Brisbane Tens tournament.
Weber’s injury will leave Tawera Kerr-Barlow in position of the starting nine jersey, where his combination with Aaron Cruden, who is joining Montpellier next season, will be crucial to the Chiefs attack. Nanai-Williams looks likely to fill in for the injured Charlie Ngatai at outside centre, with All Black breakthrough player of the year for 2016 Anton Lienert-Brown playing inside him at 12. Out wide, James Lowe has been a constant on the left wing, with Shaun Stevenson and Toni Pulu likely to be battling for the other wing spot, to join last season’s standout player Damian McKenzie in the back three.
Hooker Nathan Harris is hoping to return from injury by April, and when he does he will join fellow All Blacks Kane Hames, Nepo Laulala, Brodie Retallick and Sam Cane in a forward pack which offers just about everything.
Prediction: The Chiefs lost a major weapon in Brad Weber less than ten days before the season opener, yet if there is one team who can cope with change it is Dave Rennie’s charges and they should make the final four once again.
Scott Robertson hoping to maintain model of consistency at Crusaders
Seven-time Super Rugby winners the Crusaders are now without a title in eight years despite making the playoffs in every season since then apart from 2015. Scott Robertson has taken over from new Bath head coach Todd Blackadder at the helm, and with 11 wins in five of the last six seasons the expectations are as high as ever.
The Canterbury side performed admirably in 2016 in their first season without Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, finishing 7th on the overall log before suffering a quarter-final defeat in Jo’burg to the rampant Lions. Since then, Blackadder has moved to Europe, with 2016 starting wingers Johnny McNicholl and man-mountain Nemani Nadolo doing likewise. Andy Ellis and Jimmy Tupou have also moved on after getting plenty of minutes under the belt last season, while youngsters Ben Volavola and Alex Hodgman have joined new Super Rugby franchises.
Seta Tamanivalu is the big name incoming having moved over from the Chiefs, with Tim Bateman and Digby Ioane choosing the Crusaders as their return destination following stints away from Super Rugby. Bryn Hall adds depth to the scrum-half position, with Kiwi under-20 winger George Bridge capable of big things in his debut season, and another winger in the form of Fijian Manasa Mataele also tipped for big things.
Israel Dagg recently signed a new contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union which will see him remain with the Crusaders for the next three seasons in a big boost, while Kieran Read should be back on the pitch in early April following April. 21-year-old centre Jack Goodhue has made a strong impression in the pre-season and with the experienced Ryan Crotty and future All Black Richie Mo’unga playing inside of him there is plenty of chances he could flourish once the season begins.
Sam Whitelock will skipper the side in Read’s absence from the second-row where he joins Scott Barrett and Luke Romano in the engine room stocks, while hooker Codie Taylor will need to be on top of his game to add to his 15 caps during the Lions tour. While Read is out injured, Jordan Taufua and Matt Todd will be the experienced heads in a back-row which will be challenged all season in the Kiwi conference.
Prediction: Having only failed to reach the playoffs in two of the last 19 seasons, it would be tough to bet against them yet with a surging Blues team they could find themselves lagging at the bottom of the New Zealand conference.
The time is now for Umaga’s Blues to stand up and be counted in stacked Kiwi conference
Having now spent five seasons outside of the playoffs, and finished bottom of the New Zealand Conference in four of those five years, the Blues know all too well about how difficult it is competing against their fellow Kiwi’s. As much as the second half of last season has offered hope, they still finished 11 points outside of the playoffs, and will need to recapture that form from round one in 2017 to build confidence in what is still a youthful squad.
One thing in head coach Tana Umaga’s favour is that some of his younger charges are among his most important, with Reiko and Akira Ioane leading the way. Akira had his breakthrough season in 2015 before missing much of the last campaign to play Sevens which helped him realise his Olympic dream, with younger brother Reiko doing likewise before producing a couple of standout Blues performances when the team were at their best in 2016.
Melani Nanai is only 23 yet has shown enough promise to give people the belief he is ready to take his game to the next level, while Blake Gibson and Piers Francis should each play a huge role in their second full seasons in Auckland.
What was already a young exciting squad has been complemented in the offseason by a number of big name recruits who each have an abundance of Super Rugby experience and could be key to regaining a playoff berth. Sonny Bill Williams and Augustine Pulu were each a big part in the Chiefs 2012 success, while Pauliasi Manu and Jimmy Tupou should be day one starters also. Williams will miss the first month of the season through injury, and Patrick Tuipulotu is not yet back in the mix following a tumultuous couple of months.
Prediction: A core of All Blacks in the form of Charlie Faumuina, Jerome Kaino, Steven Luatua and George Moala have all waited to be part of a team with this much promise, and the 2017 intake look like the best in some time. If they can make a fast start to maintain pace with the other Kiwi sides they have enough firepower to return to the playoffs.