In the fourth and final section of our Super Rugby preview, we take a look at the five sides who will be competing in the New Zealand conference.
After a second successive World Cup triumph, a number of the more experienced Kiwi players have opted for a move to continue their playing career in Europe. The move has left some big holes to be filled back home in Super Rugby, which makes the New Zealand conference a must-watch as up-and-coming All Blacks make their mark.
The division is home to both of last season’s Super Rugby finalists, in the form of the Highlanders and Hurricanes. The defending champion Highlanders struck form during the playoffs to reel off three huge wins on the bounce, to claim their first title. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes were the strongest regular season side, topping the overall ladder by a considerable distance, before falling short in the final on home turf.
The three sides hoping to emulate their Kiwi compatriots are the Blues, Crusaders and Chiefs. The Chiefs are probably best placed for a title push after putting together another strong looking squad, whilst the Crusaders will be heading into a season without either Dan Carter or Richie McCaw for the first time in over a decade. The Blues are under new management, in the form of Tana Umaga, with the former All Black skipper handed the opportunity to turn a squad full of promise into a contender in the most fearsome of divisions.
Tana Umaga has a tough task on his hands in his first season as the Blues supremo. After taking over from John Kirwan who oversaw a three-win season last time out, Umaga has the makings of a young, talented side who will be desperate to bring an end to two straight seasons at the foot of the New Zealand conference. The retirements of front-row stalwarts Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu will ease the pressure on the side who look headed for another season of transition.
Unfortunately for Umaga and fans of the Auckland side, they will be without two of the most-talented young guns for a period of the season. Rieko Ioane and Akira Ioane have shown during their time with the Blues, the national Sevens side, and the Baby Blacks (national under-20 side) that they are capable of becoming stars on the world stage in the next few years. Their desire to play Sevens in the Rio Olympics later this year means they will miss a number of games for the Blues this term.
18-year-old Rieko is a back with blistering speed and footwork which has seen him light up the Sevens series already this year, whilst Akira, who is the elder brother by two years, was man of the tournament at last year’s under-20 Championship, and was the Blues best player in 2015 despite playing in a losing team most weeks. Other youngsters in the squad who continue to be given their heads at a young age include Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Blake Gibson, Ihaia West, Tevita Li and Lolagi Visinia, all of whom will continue to grow with another full season under their belts.
Sprinkled amongst an exciting youthful group is a batch of All Blacks who will need to perform at their best week in and week out. Steven Luatua and skipper, Jerome Kaino should take up two of the back-row spots every week, behind lock forward Patrick Tuipulotu who seems to be over the worst of his injury worries. In the backs, Rene Ranger returns to Auckland after three seasons with Montpellier in France, where he could partner George Moala, who was the Blues standout back last year with over 900 metres to his name, before being handed his international debut for the Kiwis against Samoa in Apia.
If the youngsters can continue to grow under Umaga, then the Blues may be building one of the best sides in the competition. Unfortunately for the Eden Park side, the Ioane brothers absence will probably mean that 2017 is a more realistic goal in terms of reaching the playoffs, due to how tough the Kiwi conference is.
The most consistent side over the past five seasons will be up against it this season if they plan on returning to the playoffs. Injuries and player departures have left the Chiefs with a squad full of question marks going into 2016. Head coach Dave Rennie has his work cut out, but at the rate they have unearthed talent over the past few years it would take a strong man to bet against the back-to-back winners of 2012 & 2013 on qualifying for the end of season knockout stages for a fifth consecutive campaign.
The list of players who will not be returning to the Chiefs this season is astronomical. Matt Symons, Mike Fitzgerald and Bryce Heem have all joined Aviva Premiership clubs, Ben Tameifuna and Hosea Gear have moved to France, whilst Tim Nanai-Williams and Liam Messam are trying their luck in Japan, with Messam planning on joining up with the Kiwi Sevens side at the end of his stint abroad. Add Liam Squire who has joined the Highlanders, and the pair of Sonny-Bill Williams and Augustine Pulu who are also enjoying life on the Sevens circuit, then that is a long list of players unavailable to the Chiefs.
A trio of new signings have all endured long-term injuries, which will only add further on the burden of the young players in the squad. Mitch Karpik and Nepo Laulala have both been ruled out for the entire season, whilst second-rower Dominic Bird is expected to miss at least 12 rounds of action.
Fortunately, the Chiefs have a returning core of All Blacks in the form of Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Aaron Cruden who are amongst the best players in their position in the competition. Outside of the internationals, the side has a group of consistent performers in Super Rugby who have been a big part of the Chiefs consistency. Hika Elliot is one of the most demonstrative hookers in New Zealand, Michael Leitch showed his excellence whilst captaining Japan at the World Cup, and Charlie Ngatai is a centre who continues to grow into his role. Add returning scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow who has been plagued by injuries recently, and you have the make-up of a strong side.
What will make or break this season for the Chiefs is the form of their inexperienced players who will have to step-up. Atunaisa Moli, Tevita Koloamatangi, Anton Leinert-Brown, Seta Tamanivalu and Damian McKenzie are amongst the players who will see an increased role this campaign, and their ability to hit the ground running will most likely dictate whether the Chiefs can maintain a playoff push.
When missing out on the playoffs by one point is seen as a poor season, it is clear that expectations are always high for the Crusaders. The 2015 side won more games than they lost, yet they still ranked fourth out of five in the New Zealand conference, in turn finishing seventh overall and outside of the playoff places. This year the mind-set in Christchurch will be for the seven-time winners to return to the top-table and claw back the distance built-up between themselves and the other Kiwi sides.
The task of returning to the playoffs will be tougher after the loss of stalwarts Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. The two All Black giants are among a raft of former internationals who left the Crusaders at the end of last season. McCaw retired from the game after captaining his country to a second straight World Cup, whilst Carter has moved to Racing 92 in France, where he is currently tearing up trees in domestic and European competitions.
Carter was joined in France by fellow fly-halves Colin Slade (Pau) and Tom Taylor (Toulon), with head coach Todd Blackadder signing Marty McKenzie from the Chiefs and Ben Volavola from the Waratahs to battle it out for the ten jersey this season. Another big loss to the Crusaders hierarchy was that of young prop forward Nepo Laulala, who looks set for a big future in the game. Laulala and Dominic Bird have headed to Waikato to play with the Chiefs, whilst Luke Whitelock has been snapped up by last year’s champions, the Highlanders. All Black outcast Israel Dagg is still rehabbing from shoulder surgery and won’t be back until April in another blow to Blackadder’s side.
The captaincy has been handed to Kieran Read, who still has a lot to offer and will be key to bringing through fellow back-rowers Jordan Taufua and Matt Todd who looked the part last season. Sam Whitelock is still one of the best lock forwards in the world and should take more of a leadership role this year, whilst recently-capped hooker Codie Taylor is ready to put pressure on Dane Coles for a starting job in the All Blacks side.
If Fiji’s Nemani Nadolo continues to be a human wrecking-ball on the left wing, then there is no reason why the Crusaders can’t challenge for a title once more. Nadolo should particularly enjoy the round 15 clash against the Chiefs which will be played in the Fijian capital of Suva.
Overcoming the loss of six All Blacks will be tough, but the Christchurch outfit have a way of proving the doubters wrong and churning out results. They still have a tight-five full of All Blacks including Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Taylor, Whitelock and Luke Romano who should give the side a platform which will help them to remain competitive in what is an unforgiving conference.
Last year’s champions return many of the squad who captured the Highlanders maiden Super Rugby title. The 2015 vintage was an underrated side, but as a group they became unstoppable, and ended the season with back-to-back playoff wins on the road against the Waratahs and Hurricanes to win the title.
Returning head coach Jamie Joseph says that his side are now the hunted rather than the hunter after winning the trophy last time round, and has challenged his side to repeat as champions. This will be Joseph’s last year in the post, after it was announced that he will take over as head coach of the Japanese national side at the end of the Super Rugby season to take over from Eddie Jones.
Joseph has put together another strong side, despite losing back-row stalwarts John Hardie and Nasi Manu to sides in Scotland. He has replaced both players well, bringing in Liam Squire from the Chiefs, and Luke Whitelock from the Crusaders, who already has 50 Super Rugby appearances to his name.
The side suffered a huge blow in the weeks leading up to the season, when crowd favourite Richard Buckman was ruled out for the entire season. The centre injured his shoulder whilst scoring a try in a pre-season match against Racing 92 in Hong Kong. Kurt Baker will also not return to Otago this year, after signing a full contract with the New Zealand side for the 2016 series.
The star power in this side is most certainly in the back-line. Five All Blacks litter the back division, and on their day they are a match for any side in the competition. Half-backs Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga lead the way with their expert kicking game, which allows the likes of centre Malakai Fekitoa to run with the ball in opposition territory. The ‘Landers also possess two of the best counter-attacking runners in their back three in the form of Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith. Smith rules the air on attack and defence, whilst Naholo is up there with the top finishers in world rugby, as proved by his competition high of 13 tries in 2015.
If the Highlanders new-look back-row can deal with the losses of Manu and Hardie, there is no doubt that this side has the calibre to defend their title. Liam Squire has the potential to be an excellent addition to the side after impressing during limited opportunities with the Chiefs, whilst Elliot Dixon should continue to grow in the six jersey after his incredible performance in last year’s final. The back-line will continue to cause problems for the other 17 sides if they stay fit, which should allow the Otago-men to reach the playoffs once more.
Last season’s beaten finalists are determined to finally get over the winning line this time out despite the loss of their mesmeric centre partnership. Conrad Smith (Pau) and Ma’a Nonu (Toulon) both made the move to France after playing a big part in New Zealand’s World Cup success, and are practically irreplaceable after what they bought to the side. Rookies Vince Aso and Ngani Laumape will battle it out with new signing Pita Akhi for the two centre positions, after fellow midfielder Rey Lee-Lo also left Wellington to join the Cardiff Blues last year.
The backline still has stardust littered throughout it, in the form of four World Cup winners. Nehe Milner-Skudder was the find of 2015 and will remain a constant menace at full-back, while winger Julian Savea can lay claim to being the best winger on the planet after his performances over the past few years. The half-back pairing of TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett are the most attacking-minded in the competition, and will continue to attack from deep when given the option.
Head coach Chris Boyd remains in charge after overseeing a terrific turnaround in 2015. In the previous season, the ‘Canes won just eight games and missed out on the playoff spots by a narrow margin. Then last year, they swept all before them, winning 14 of 16 round robin games to top the league ladder by 13 points, scoring a league high 58 tries in the process.
There has not been many roster changes to the forward pack which helped the Hurricanes to dominate in 2015. Ben Franks (London Irish) and Jeremy Thrush (Gloucester) have moved on to play in England, but apart from the front eight will remain the same if healthy. Dane Coles will skipper the side from hooker, where he is ably backed up by Motu Matu’u. Blade Thomson, Mark Abbott and James Broadhurst will oversee the second-row duties which have become available after the loss of Thrush.
Flanker Ardie Savea was man-of-the-match umpteen times last campaign, but the Hurricanes will have to do without him on a couple of occasions this year due to his commitments with the New Zealand Sevens side. When he is playing Super Rugby, he will most likely pack down with Victor Vito and Brad Shields in a back-row that does it all.
If the Hurricanes came overcame the mammoth loss of Nonu and Smith, there form for 2015 shows that they are amongst the best teams in the competition. They have a fantastic head coach in Chris Boyd who won’t allow the players to rest on their laurels and if they can continue to translate their performance from the Cake Tin on the road, then a playoff spot is all but assured in 2016.