Our rugby scribe takes a look at the New Zealand Super Rugby Conference.
The New Zealand franchises had a year to remember in 2017 with only the Blues failing to make the quarter-finals, which was due to the competition format rather than the Aucklanders performing poorly. Will 2017 see the New Zealand franchises repeat last year's feats?
To Win Outright: 20/1
2016 Finish: Conference Phase Exit
While Tana Umaga’s first year at the helm of the Blues didn’t end in playoff qualification, it did culminate in a much-improved showing from Auckland’s finest who managed to win eight of their 15 games. The Aucklanders could well improve on that record this term as they have made some smart moves in the off-season, particularly the signing of Sonny-Bill Williams.
Williams could be partnered in the centres by one of the hottest prospects in New Zealand rugby, Rieko Ioane. The 19-year-old had a sensational 2016 which saw him go from unknown quantity to All Black. If he and Williams can hit the ground running then the Blues may well find themselves with the most explosive pairing in this year’s competition.
The Blues do have a bit of an issue with their midfield, however, namely the fly-half berth. There was talk of the Blues trying to lure Beauden Barrett to Auckland last May but it didn’t come to fruition. So the Blues will be stuck with Ehia West as first choice pivot for another season.
While West is a competent ten, he’s more of a jack off all trades rather than a specialist kicker, distributor or runner. West will be playing behind a solid looking pack and he has a quality scrum-half providing him service with Augustine Pulu making the move from the Chiefs. The capture of Pulu should help hide some of West’s deficiencies.
Speaking of the Blues pack, there’s a young flanker who really looked the part during the early rounds of last year’s competition. The man in question is Blake Gibson. Last year was actually Gibson’s second year playing in the competition. It was also the second year that he sustained a season-ending injury. If the aggressive 21-year-old can stay fit, then he may just steal his way into Steve Hansen’s All Black side.
Biggest Strength: Formidable Midfield
When you can select from All Blacks Sonny-Bill Williams, George Moala and Rieko Ioane, you know you have a midfield to rival anyone in the comp. All three men ooze class, and it will be interesting to see how Umaga rotates them. The Blues mentor does have the option of playing Ioane on the wing which is rather handy, but I suspect the young gun will start in the midfield while Sonny-Bill Williams is eased back into things.
Player to Watch: Rieko Ioane
This kid has everything you want, and expect, in a New Zealand backline player. His pace and power see him past most opponents but it’s his ability to the read the game that has left a mark on the New Zealand public’s conscience. Young Reiko is in for a massive 2017.
Could another longshot make it to the final a la 2016? The Blues are currently 20/1 to win the tournament and I will certainly be having a flutter. Nothing huge but a R50 investment could well reap substantial dividends. They have the players to kick on this year and if West can up his game, then the Blues may just pull off a massive shock.
To Win Outright: 5/1
2016 Finish: Semi-Final Exit
This will be Dave Rennie’s last year at the helm of the Chiefs before he moves onto coaching the Glasgow Warriors and you can bet your bottom dollar that the man who oversaw the most successful period in Waikato rugby history will be going all out to end his tenure with another Super Rugby title.
Rennie almost managed to bag his third Super Rugby trophy last year but his side were beaten by eventual champions, the Wellington Hurricanes, in the semi-finals. They do have the capacity to go all the way this term, though, especially considering that they’ve managed to keep a hold of All Black fly-half Aaron Cruden. The 47-cap international was subject to interest from a handful of European clubs after losing his All Black starting berth to the 2016 World Rugby Player of The Year, Beauden Barrett. Cruden has opted to stay in New Zealand for one more Super Rugby campaign before he jets off to France to ply his trade with Montpellier.
The Chiefs haven’t been able to retain all of their All Black halfbacks, however, as scrumhalf Augustine Pulu has moved to Auckland to ply his trade with the Blues. It is not too damaging a loss, though, as Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Brad Webber were in sensational form last term while Pulu was away with the New Zealand Sevens squad. Speaking of nuggety pint-sized backs, the Chiefs will be looking to mercurial fullback Damian McKenzie to spark counter-attacks from deep inside their own half. The Invercargill-native took the competition by storm last year racking up a staggering 199 points.
It’s not just the Chiefs backs that are world beaters, though. Their forward pack, led by heir to Richie McCaw’s All Black seven jumper, Sam Cane, is full of quality. While any team who can boast a second row of Brodie Rettalick and Dominic Bird is going to give their opponents a hard time at the lineout.
Biggest Strength: Ability to Score from Range
The men from Waikato scored some absolute blinders from range last year. And with Mckenzie, James Lowe and Toni Pulu s to link up in the back three, we’re likely to see the Chiefs run-in more jaw-dropping seven pointers this season.
Player to Watch: Charlie Ngatai
I really felt for the big centre last year. He started the 2016 Super Rugby season like a house on fire and looked a shoe-in for Steve Hansen's All Blacks squad that took on Wales in June. A plethora of niggly injuries and a serious concussion meant Ngatai spent most of 2016 on the sidelines. I suspect the extended rest and disappointment missing out on a recall to Hansen’s squad will only make Ngatai more determined to prove his worth in 2017.
This is an exceedingly talented Chiefs side but I feel there’s something missing. I can’t place my finger on it but they just don’t seem like a championship winning side. I reckon they’ll dazzle us all once again and then go to pieces at the semi-final stage.
To Win Outright: 5/1
2016 Finish: Quarter-Final Exit
The Crusaders faced a massive test last year after losing stalwarts Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. There is still some debate, down in Canterbury, as to whether last season was actually a success. While a run to the quarter-finals wasn’t exactly what fans of the most successful Super Rugby side would consider ‘success’, the rise to prominence of Dan Carter’s heir, Richie Mo’unga, and the continued improvement of Matt Todd on the flank, can only be seen as a massive plus for Canterbury’s finest.
Speaking of Mo’unga, the little general played a pivotal role for Canterbury during their Mitre 10 Cup title defence, last year, and ended the campaign with an 81% goal-kicking record. The 22-year-old pivot wasn’t the only Crusaders’ young gun to impress during the Mitre 10, with 21-year-old Jack Goodhue putting in some solid shifts.
The Crusaders won’t just be reliant on their young guns in the backline, however, as All Black veterans Israel Dagg and Ryan Crotty, who had stellar campaigns for both franchise and country in 2016, will provide experience and guile.
The Crusaders have lost a key player in the form of giant Fijian Nemani Nadolo, who is now plying his trade out in France with Montpellier. Newly installed head coach, Scott Robertson, has moved to plug the gigantic hole left by Nadolo by bringing in former Wallaby Digby Ioane. And while Ioane won’t bring the same threat with ball in hand as his predecessor did, the 31-year-old will bring a wealth of experience to the table.
Biggest Strength: Set Piece Dominance
They may have lost some of their more experienced backline players in the off-season, with Johnny McNicoll, Nemani Nadolo and Robbie Fruean all heading to Europe, but their forward pack is as strong as ever. They have three All Black locks, three All Black props and a back row featuring New Zealand skipper Kieran Reed. That’s enough firepower to outclass any opposition at set piece time.
Player to Watch: Richie Mo’unga
The youngster was top class last year, stepping up to the plate and delivering some huge performances. His ability to take the ball to the gain line caught opposition defences off-guard and his goal-kicking wasn’t too shabby either. Expect a big season from Richie this year.
Verdict: Conference Winners and Overall Winners
I tipped them to win it last year and after three rounds I already regretted my decision. I’m going with them again this year and hopefully, they’ll come to the party. The Canterbarians have the best forward pack in the comp and their younger backs now have a year’s worth of experience.
To Win Outright: 11/2
2015 Finish: Semi-Final Exit
The Highlander put in a gutsy showing during their title defence but struggled to adapt their game plan. The best example of this was during their semi-final against the Lions where Joburg’s Pride methodically took them apart.
The Lion’s game plan for that contest was simple; keep ball in hand and rather than kick onto their opponents. This meant that the Highlanders were given precious little ball to play with, which effectively forced their hand into running with the ball rather than kicking into space and putting in a solid chase.
The departure of Jamie Joseph may actually help the Highlanders this term. The veteran mentor implemented the Highlanders contestable kicking approach which, in fairness, reaped great dividends in 2015. It will be interesting to see if the new man at the helm, Joseph’s former number 2, Tony Brown follows suit or changes things up dramatically.
Brown was a great innovator during his playing days. His players reckon he has the same mentality when it comes to coaching, so we could well see the Highlanders play to a completely different tune this term.
The men from the Otago certainly have the players to adopt and adapt with All Blacks Lima Sopaga, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Waisake Naholo and Malakai Fekitoa all set to play big roles this year.
It’s not just in the backline where the Highlanders are stoked with All Black stars. Their forward pack contains Elliot Dixon, Liam Squire as well as Luke Whitelock. Factor in New Zealand Maori representatives Shane Christie and James Leintjies, and you have a forward pack capable of winning most rucks.
Player to Watch: Tevita Li
The Blues have suffered a huge loss with Li moving on to the Highlanders. The quick-footed utility back was in sensational form last year, scoring some scintillating long-range tries. While he’s unlikely to get any game time at fullback – Ben Smith has that position locked down – Li will get a whole host of chances on the wing.
Biggest Strength: Tactical Kicking Game
I know I lambasted it’s deployment earlier in this segment but astute tactical kicking still has a big role to play in the Highlanders season. Fly-half Lima So’poaga has an extremely educated boot and the Highlanders chase line will only get better with Tevita Li now in the squad.
Verdict: Conference Phase Exit
I think the Highlanders will need an adjustment period under Tony Brown. Yes, he has already been their second in command but he’ll still need to get his charges to adapt to his philosophy. I can see them struggling at the outset and then hitting a rich vein of form late on in the tournament. I feel the late show won’t be enough to see them to the play-offs however.
To Win Outright: 15/4
2016 Finish: Champions
The defending champions come into this one as favourites which is no surprise when you look at their playing squad. Not only have the ‘Canes retained their star players but they also managed to pick up promising youngsters Jordy Barrett and Peter Umaga-Jensen.
Speaking of the Barrett’s, Jordy’s older brother Beauden is likely to spearhead the Hurricanes title defence. The IRB’s World Player of The Year was nothing short of sensational last year guiding his side to a first ever Super Rugby trophy. His combination play with scrum-half TJ Perrenara borders on telepathic.
Like most of the other New Zealand franchises, the Hurricanes also possess a frightening forward pack. Led by the superman of world rugby, Dan Coles, the Hurricanes eight are a real threat at the set piece and breakdown, but there biggest attribute is their ability with ball in hand. Dan Coles epitomises the previous statement. The man runs the hundred as quickly as most centres in the comp do. He also has a pair of hands that most backs would envy. But it’s his ability to read the game that makes him the poster boy for the new breed of forward.
Another member of the pack that we can expect big things from in 2017 is Ardie Savea. The flanker is still trying to rid himself of the ‘Impact Player’ tag that has been placed on him by all Black coach Steve Hansen. Ardie will be going all out to ensure Hansen changes his viewpoint.
Player to Watch: Jordie Barrett
Willis Halaholo and James Marshall may have both left the Hurricanes but Jordie Barrett is an adequate replacement for the duo. The youngest of the Barrett brothers was in fine form during the Mitre 10 Cup. I would not be surprised at all if Jordy has nailed down a starting spot by the midway point in the season.
Biggest Strength: 9/10 Axis
As I mentioned earlier, Beauden Barrett and TJ Perrenara are fast becoming New Zealand’s best halfback combination. Both men are able to up the tempo of a game in a blink of an eye, leaving opposition defences floundering.
Verdict: Semi-Finalists and New Zealand Conference Runners Up
Hurricanes fans are going to hate me for this but I think the boys are due a sub-standard. My money is on them getting knocked out at the semi-final stage this year.