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Preview: New Zealand conference

There has been plenty of player movement amongst the New Zealand franchises, which should make the conference particularly intriguing this season.

While it is worth reflecting on how the sides measured up to one another last season, there is also the added edge of watching new and exciting combinations in every team and it should be fascinating to watch it play out.

Last season the New Zealand conference was fiercely contested, with the new format bringing out a brutally competitive streak in the Kiwis, so the injury toll could prove decisive.

The team that manages their squad most intelligently and avoids being hit hard by injuries could hold an upper hand when it matters, especially as every team has the players to be competitive on their day.

Blues

The Auckland side have looked good on paper for the last few seasons without ever delivering on their potential, and with some exciting new additions to their squad this year they will be hopeful of finally bringing back the glory days of the late ‘90s.
Pat Lam’s team spent their fair share of time at the top of the log last season, and with All Black stars Piri Weepu and Ma’a Nonu in their ranks they should be serious contenders again. The Blues have an intimidating pack of forwards and some creative outside backs but the team has lacked a forceful halfback general to give them direction. This year the versatile Weepu joins scrumhalf Alby Matthewson and young flyhalves Michael Hobbs and Gareth Anscombe, and how coach Lam manages those positions could well determine whether the Blues follow through this season.

Captain: Keven Mealamu
Coach: Pat Lam

Squad: Gareth Anscombe, Anthony Boric, Daniel Braid, Luke Braid, Charlie Faumuina, Michael Hobbs, Jerome Kaino, Chris Lowrey, Tevita Mailau, Pauliasi Manu, Alby Mathewson, Tom McCartney, Keven Mealamu, Brad Mika, George Moala, Liaki Moli, Lachie Munro, Ma’a Nonu, Filo Paulo, David Raikuna, Rene Ranger, Peter Saili, Benson Stanley, Sherwin Stowers, Angus Ta’avao, Isaia Toeava, Piri Weepu, Ali Williams, Tony Woodcock, Rudi Wulf.

Chiefs

The Chiefs have had a makeover of sorts, with a new coaching staff and a number of big name signings, and look like they might be the surprise package this season.
Dave Rennie has replaced new All Blacks assistant Ian Foster as head coach and can boast the services of the highly respected former All Black backline coach Wayne Smith. In addition to this he has managed to lure some exciting talent, most notably in the form of the World Cup-winning pair of Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams who add to the impressive talent already in the backline. However, despite an abundance of riches behind the scrum it will be the forwards who determine whether the Chiefs achieve the necessary consistency to match the top teams. The tight five in particular could be an area of weakness for the team from Hamilton, which other teams will inevitably target, so dealing with that will be their greatest challenge.
Rennie has named both Liam Messam and Craig Clarke as captains, and both influential forwards will be expected to lead from the front and ensure that the backline gets the ball on the front foot.

Captain(s): Liam Messam and Craig Clarke
Coach: Dave Rennie

Squad: Ben Afeaki, Alex Bradley, Sam Cane, Craig Clarke, Shane Cleaver, Aaron Cruden, Hika Elliot, Mike Fitzgerald, Romana Graham, Andrew Horrell, Richard Kahui, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Tanerau Latimer, Fritz Lee, Brendon Leonard, Lelia Masaga, Liam Messam, Tim Nanai-Williams, Maritino Nemani, Declan O’Donnell, Brodie Retallick, Robbie Robinson, Mahonri Schwalger, Toby Smith, Ben Tameifuna, Sona Taumalolo, Kane Thompson, Asaeli Tikoiratuma, Scott Waldrom, Sonny Bill Williams, Jackson Willison    

Hurricanes

The Hurricanes lost a host of senior All Blacks at the end of last season and on paper they seem to be easily the weakest of the New Zealand franchises.
An exodus of quality performers such as Andrew Hore, Ma’a Nonu, Hosea Gear and Piri Weepu means that many are writing off Mark Hammett’s men before they have taken the field. After a disappointing campaign last year the fresh squad may be just what the Hurricanes boss needs to prove his ability. While Hammett’s relationship with some of the players who departed was not great, he now has the chance to build something new. The clean slate and relative lack of pressure makes the Wellington side a potentially threatening outfit this season and they will relish the prospect of being underestimated.
 
Captain: Conrad Smith
Coach: Mark Hammett

Squad: Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Beauden Barrett, Tim Bateman, Michael Bent, James Broadhurst, Richard Buckman, Dane Coles, Jason Eaton, Chris Eaton, Reggie Goodes, David Hall, Jayden Hayward, Cory Jane, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Jack Lam, Alapati Leiua, Faifili Levave, Karl Lowe, Motu Matu’u, Ben May, Tristan Moran, Charlie Ngatai, TJ Perenara, Tusi Pisi, Mark Reddish, Julian Savea, Brad Shields, Conrad Smith, Chris Smylie, Andre Taylor, Jeremy Thrush, Victor Vito

Crusaders

The Crusaders have their sights on going one step better than last season and lifting the Super Rugby trophy once more, and will be intent on matching the intensity which marked their emotional campaign last year. The Canterbury set-up has produced an unrivalled culture of success over the years, and now that they will be playing their home games in Christchurch they will be a formidable prospect for any team. Despite this they will start the season on the back foot without the services of Crusaders legends Richie McCaw and Dan Carter who are still recovering from injury, and how they manage without them will be crucial to their hopes of topping the conference.After the remarkable experience they went through last season coach Todd Blackadder will be keen to match that hunger, and if they do then they will be hard to stop anywhere.

Captain: Richie McCaw
Coach: Todd Blackadder

Squad: Nicholas Barrett, Tyler Bleyendaal, Daniel Carter, Wyatt Crockett, Ryan Crotty, Israel Dagg, Tom Donnelly, Andy Ellis, Corey Flynn, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Robbie Fruean, Ben Funnell, Zac Guildford, Willi Heinz, Ross Kennedy, Quentin MacDonald, Sean Maitland, Tom Marshall, Richie McCaw, Patrick Osborne, Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Tom Taylor, Matt Todd, Joe Wheeler, Sam Whitelock, George Whitelock, Adam Whitelock, Luke Whitelock      

Highlanders

The Highlanders surprised many at the beginning of the Super Rugby season last year by playing out of their boots and coach Jamie Joseph will be intent on recreating that intensity this year. Joseph was in his debut season at the helm in Dunedin last year and his low-key squad was not given much of a chance, but they bolted out of the blocks playing with impressive commitment and intensity to cause a few big upsets. The fierce nature of Super Rugby took its toll on the squad, and they faded thanks to injury and general fatigue. A major issue for the Highlanders is that they have been too reliant on certain key players such as Adam Thomson, Jamie Mackintosh and Jimmy Cowan, and in order to address this they have snapped up some more big names to share the load. With ex-Hurricanes Andrew Hore and Hosea Gear in the squad and the prospect of Colin Slade getting through a game without breaking his jaw there should be plenty of reason to be hopeful down south. However, despite these additions Joseph’s squad has already been decimated by injury before the season has even kicked off and he faces a major challenge getting his team to be competitive in the early rounds. 

Captain: Jamie Mackintosh
Coach: Jamie Joseph

Squad: Kurt Baker, Josh Bekhuis, Jimmy Cowan, Nick Crosswell, Elliot Dixon, Tamati Ellison, Ma’afu Fia, Hosea Gear, John Hardie, James Haskell, Jarred Hoeata, Andrew Hore, Chris King, Kendrick Lynn, Jamie Mackintosh, Nasi Manu, Bronson Murray, Chris Noakes, Siale Piutau, Kade Poki, Culum Retallick, Jason Rutledge, Colin Slade, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Adam Thomson, Doug Tietjens, Shaun Treeby, Telusa Veainu

Conference prediction: The Crusaders are likely to be seriously challenged by the likes of the Blues and perhaps the Chiefs, but it is tough to bet against them finishing top. The franchise has developed such an imposing culture and maintained consistently high standards for so long that they must be favourites.

The Blues will be their main contenders and if they can maintain their focus throughout the season then they could pull it off, but it seems more likely that they will finish a close second.

There is plenty of excitement surrounding the Chiefs, and they should bag some big results, but they do not have the quality across the park to compete with the Crusaders and Blues.

If the Highlanders can build on the promising strides they made last year then they could well challenge the Chiefs for that third place but they lack the depth to sustain their challenge right until the end.

It will be an uphill battle for the Hurricanes this year, and they should finish last, but they could avoid the Wooden Spoon if enough teams write them off and they pull together.

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