Darry Worthington takes a look at how the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises are shipping up headed into the all-Kiwi Super Rugby Aoetearoa tournament.
The countdown to the rugby’s return edges ever closer with under a month left until the kick-off of Super Rugby Aotearoa. The tournament promises to be an absolute humdinger with New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises squaring off in 10 consecutive weeks of derbies.
With many European Rugby leagues called off and the Japanese Top League being cut short a number of overseas-based New Zealanders have returned home to bolster the local franchises.
We’ll take a look at how the five sides are looking heading into the tournament.
New Zealand Super Rugby Conference Position Pre-COVID: Second
The Blues were enjoying a decent time of it in Super Rugby proper until the season was put on hold due to the advent of COVID-19. Leon McDonald’s had won five of their seven fixtures and had suffered just two defeats. Somewhat worryingly, though, the aforementioned they had already suffered defeats at the hands of local rivals the Chiefs and Crusaders. Although a victory over the ‘Canes a few weeks before the season went on hiatus did illustrate that they are capable of beating their domestic foes
Strength: A very exciting backline and a solid looking back three which isn’t short on depth.
Weaknesses: Their front row stocks don’t go too deep while they also have been extremely fragile in the mental stakes for the better part of the last decade.
Key player: Beauden Barrett
The Blues star signing will make his debut for his new franchise in Round 1 of Super Rugby Aotearoa. The All Black pivot will be tasked with turning this Blues side from pretenders to contenders. Is the mercurial multiple World Rugby Player of the Year capable of this?
New Zealand Super Rugby Conference Position Pre-COVID: Third
The men from Waikato had been the pacesetters during the early phases of this year’s Super Rugby tournament but started to fall off the boil somewhat just before the tournament was suspended losing to the Brumbies and Hurricanes at home during the last three rounds prior to the tournament being suspended. They did manage wins over the Blues and Crusaders during this year’s Super Rugby tournament, however.
Strengths: An in-form Aaron Cruden who has shown his game-winning abilities this year and a very handy forward pack.
Weaknesses: Their centre pairing isn’t as good as some of the other sides in the tournament, although if young gun Quinn Tupea can settle then he may well give the centre of the Chiefs backline an extra dynamic.
Key Player: Damien McKenzie
McKenzie blew extremely hot and cold during the early salvos of Super Rugby 2020 but that was to be expected considering how long he was sidelined for. The extended break should have done the All Black a world of good, and if he hits the ground running when Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks off then the Chiefs may well have a chance of winning the tournament.
New Zealand Super Rugby Position Pre-COVID: First
As always, the Crusaders will come into a tournament with Super in its name as hot favourites with the ‘books. The reigning Super Rugby champions were in great form before the season was called off and sat at the top of the New Zealand Conference with six wins from their seven games with their only defeat coming in Round 2 to the Chiefs.
Strengths: They have a very experienced squad who know how to win things and be consistent over a ten-week period.
Weaknesses: I can’t see any on paper at least.
Key Player: Richie Mounga
Make no bone about it, Mo’unga will be looking to prove a point when he takes to the field in Super Rugby Aotearoa. The All Blacks failure to win last year’s World Cup saw pundits slate former New Zealand coach Steve Hansen for playing Beauden Barrett at 15 and Mo’unga at ten. Expect a fired up Mo’unga to make a statement.
Player Boost: Sam Whitelock
The men from Canterbury were also handed a massive boost a few weeks ago with forward Sam Whitelock returning early from Japan.
New Zealand Super Rugby Conference Position Pre-COVID: Last
The Highlanders will have been one of the few teams that would have welcomed the close of Super Rugby 2020 with the 2015 Super Rugby champions only registering one win from their opening six games. They really struggled to assert themselves during the opening six weeks of Super Rugby and may well struggle here as they have a rather unbalanced side.
Strengths: They’ve had time to regroup and hopefully the coaches have had a better look at how they are going to set their backline up.
Weaknesses: A lack of experience and coach Aaron Mauger’s instance on playing Mitchell Hunt at fly-half instead of Josh Ioane.
Key Player: Aaron Smith
Smith is going to have to take this team by the scruff of the neck if they are to avoid finishing at the foot of the table. The veteran All Black scrum-half is capable of playing the role of leader but he’s going to also need to distribute some of the duties. He’s also going to need a spark at fly-half as his and Mitch Hunt’s combination game did not look great.
Player Boost: Nehe Milner-Skudder
The Highlanders have managed to pull off a coup during the lockdown period landing the services of World Cup-winning Nehe Milner-Skudder. The former Hurricanes man was meant to be on his way to France but a niggly shoulder injury and COVID-19 saw French giants Toulon cancel his contract. He’s now linking up with the Highlanders and will add some dynamism to a back three that was rather fragile with Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo having moved on at the close of 2019.
New Zealand Super Rugby Conference Position Pre-COVID: Fourth
The ‘Canes were rather hit and miss during the opening six weeks of the Super Rugby season winning four while losing two of their fixtures. They did register some impressive wins in the first six rounds though beating the overall table toppers, the Sharks, and hammering the Stormers at Newlands. They did struggle somewhat against New Zealand opposition, going down to the Blues 15-24 before scraping a 24-27 victory over the Chiefs with a last-minute penalty.
Strengths: A solid backline with big ball-runners in the midfield. They also possess a very mobile forward pack that is tailored to play fast-paced rugby.
Weaknesses: They’re missing Beuaden’s Barrett’s magic at first receiver.
Key Player: Ngani Laumape
The burly inside centre has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders with Beaudedn Barrett having left the franchise. While he hasn’t got the flicks and tricks Barrett has, he still is capable of getting this Hurricanes backline firing with his blockbuster ball carrying.