Five big 2021 posers for Kiwi franchises
SPOTLIGHT: As is the case every year, this year’s Super Signing Day has given fans plenty of food for thought ahead of the 2021 Super Rugby campaign.
Some players have come and others have gone, but plenty of questions remain about how each of the five franchises will fare in next year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
Here are five of the most pressing questions to ponder over the summer months ahead of the February 26 kick-off between the Highlanders and Crusaders.
1) Who starts in the outside backs for the Blues while Beauden Barrett is on sabbatical?
The biggest signing in Super Rugby history has already left his new side for greener pastures, albeit just for one season.
Beauden Barrett, the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year who sent shockwaves across the competition by leaving the Hurricanes to join the Blues ahead of the 2020 season, won’t be playing Super Rugby next year.
Instead, he has triggered the sabbatical clause in his contract to play one season for Suntory Sungoliath in Japan’s Top League, a deal thought to be worth about NZ$1.5 million.
In years gone by, this would have left a gaping hole in the Blues’ roster that the franchise would have scrambled to fill.
Furthermore, many pundits would have projected a Blues team of the past that had just lost one of the best players on the planet to struggle dearly
This isn’t just any regular Blues team, though.
Sure, the influence Barrett brought to this franchise that has long struggled to rekindle the glory that won it three titles in its first eight seasons of existence would have been huge.
After all, it’s not every day a team gets their hands on a World Cup winner, Super Rugby champion and holder of almost 90 test caps for the All Blacks.
But, under the guidance of a quality coaching staff headed by Leon MacDonald, the Blues have managed to get the best out of the rest of a playing group that had underperformed for far too long.
In fact, their resurgence this year, which saw them challenge the Crusaders for the Super Rugby Aotearoa crown before settling for second place, started back in pre-COVID Super Rugby, when Barrett was still on his extended All Blacks break.
The Blues played just as well, if not better, when Barrett was brought into the fold, but the franchise’s form from the end of January through to mid-March indicated they weren’t reliant on their marquee signing.
Under the dual-playmaking scheme of Otere Black at first-five and Stephen Perofeta at fullback, the Blues won five of their opening seven matches and looked genuine title contenders just as the competition was suspended.
Returning to action in Super Rugby Aotearoa, Barrett slotted into fullback to accompany Black in the Blues’ first five matches thanks to an injury to Perofeta.
The 29-year-old then took Black’s place at No. 10 for the final two matches against the Chiefs and Highlanders, but with Barrett lost to Japan, the latter is the prime candidate to reclaim the first-five spot.
Given how well he worked in tandem with Black from fullback earlier in the year, Perofeta could move back into the No. 15 jersey, but two key signings could alter the selection frame.
In Zarn Sullivan, the Blues have one of the brightest young talents in the country, one who looms as a long-term first-five prospect for the club.
However, MacDonald has already expressed his desire to keep the 20-year-old at fullback given his youth, which is where he and Perofeta will compete with fellow youngster Emoni Narawa for a starting role.
All three are bursting at the seam with potential, and the upcoming season presents a massive opportunity to realise that without Barrett standing in their way.
Throw in additions of barnstorming wings AJ Lam, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Jone Macilai-Tori, and incumbent No. 14 Mark Telea has one hell of a job on his hands to retain his successful partnership with breakout star Caleb Clarke.
There’s no shortage of backfield options available for MacDonald to plot his next title challenge with, but just who makes the cut in the wake of Barrett’s Japanese sojourn is anyone’s guess.
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2) Can the Chiefs bounce back from their horror 2020 season without Warren Gatland?
Not many would have predicted the downfall the Chiefs endured during Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The addition of Warren Gatland, one of the world’s most decorated coaches, from his lengthy stay in the United Kingdom promised a return to the glory days of 2012 and 2013.
Mix in the return of Chiefs legend Aaron Cruden as their primary playmaker, and the Hamilton franchise looked a potent threat for whatever challenge came their way in 2020.
It certainly looked like it was heading that way before coronavirus struck and cancelled Super Rugby in March, with the Chiefs heading into lockdown flying high at four wins from six games.
Fast-forward five months, and the Hamiltonians were in an entirely different position, capping off their Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign with zero victories from eight matches.
How did this proud franchise go so badly wrong? The answer to that remains to be seen, but the loss of Brodie Retallick – as highlighted in last year’s edition of this piece – played a significant factor in their winless season.
Even then, it’s not as if they were short of talent, with nine All Blacks past and present accompanied by a raft of players who would walk into any Super Rugby franchise – case in point being Solomon Alaimalo’s defection to the Highlanders.
The more concerning exit, though, comes at head coach, as Gatland will be missing from the Chiefs next year to lead the British and Irish Lions for a third time on their tour of South Africa.
In his place comes Bay of Plenty and Maori All Blacks boss Clayton McMillan, unenviably tasked with turning this team from New Zealand’s cellar-dwellers to title contenders.
Perhaps McMillan’s experience of coaching predominantly in New Zealand will suit the Chiefs better than philosophy implemented by Gatland, of which was heavily influenced by his almost three-decade stay in England, Ireland and Wales.
The knowledge accrued by young second-rowers Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Tupou Vaa’i will also go some way to alleviating the loss of Retallick, while securing Bryn Gatland’s signature gives the Chiefs good first-five cover following the loss of Cruden to Japan.
Still, losing a coach the calibre of Gatland Sr and replacing him with someone who had no involvement in the prior season, and will thus go in without any learnings of that year’s shortcomings, is risky from the Chiefs.
3) Are the Hurricanes genuine title contenders without a world-class halves duo?
In his second year as Hurricanes head coach, Jason Holland has largely kept with the status quo in terms of playing personnel, making minimal changes to his squad from the side that finished third in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
All in all, there are just eight new players from the squad that was initially named at the end of last year, but Holland could have done better in his pursuit for fresh inside backs.
The loss of Beauden Barrett to the Blues was bad enough, but now the Hurricanes have to deal with the departure of co-captain TJ Perenara to Top League club NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in Japan on a one-season sabbatical.
With those two losses, the Wellington franchise has been stripped of their 2016 championship-winning halves combo, and, as good as their current crop of halfbacks and first-fives are, they pale in comparison to what Perenara and Barrett offered.
Through halfbacks Jamie Booth, Luke Campbell and Jonathan Taumateine, and first-fives Jackson Garden-Bachop and Simon Hickey, the Hurricanes’ championship hopes hinge on playmakers who are either rookies or are yet to deliver in Super Rugby.
In all fairness, Booth caught many an eye in Super Rugby Aotearoa with his speedy running game, but he will be out for the first half of the season with a broken leg, which might restrict his impact upon return.
It’ll then be up to Campbell, a Super Rugby newbie who wasn’t bad for Bay of Plenty, and Taumateine, who has been starved of action at this level for four seasons now, to provide pill for two pivots who haven’t lit the world alight in New Zealand.
That means Holland needs to get the absolute best out of his generals if they are to build on their promising efforts in 2020.
4) Can the Crusaders be stopped from winning a fifth straight title?
The question from this piece last year was: How will the Crusaders cope following their exodus of established All Blacks?
Scott Robertson and his men answered that emphatically as, despite losing 497 test caps worth of experience, they strolled to their fourth straight title, adding a Super Rugby Aotearoa crown to their Super Rugby three-peat.
The scary thing is the Crusaders show no sign of letting up either.
Maybe the biggest point of concern for Robertson from the season gone by was that his side lost their first competition match on home soil since July 2016 when the Hurricanes came to Christchurch and left 34-32 victors at Orangetheory Stadium.
Perhaps that win provided the other franchises with a blueprint of how to defeat the juggernauts at their fortress, but clinching a win in the Garden City looks as difficult as ever when you consider the 2021 Crusaders squad.
Only five players have been swapped in and out of the roster – of those going out, none were starting players or match day regulars, while those coming in were standouts in the Mitre 10 Cup and add depth to an already frightening team.
Just look at their second-row stocks as an example.
Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett are both starting All Blacks, Luke Romano is a former World Cup winner, Quinten Strange would have played for the All Blacks were it not for injury, and Mitchell Dunshea was called up as Strange’s injury replacement.
It’s eerily similar throughout the rest of the squad, and with two trophies on the line in 2021 – Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman – it would come as little surprise to see the Crusaders win six titles in five seasons.
5) Which players make up the best loose forward trio at the Highlanders?
Aaron Mauger’s sacking as head coach of the Highlanders has paved the way for Tony Brown to return to the role he held back in 2017.
Based on the way he has performed in the transfer market alone, it looks to be a masterstroke move by the Dunedin franchise.
Through Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley, Tongan midfielder Fetuli Paea, ex-Crusaders flanker Billy Harmon and former Chiefs speedster Solomon Alaimalo, Brown has pulled together a squad that threatens to do much better than this year.
The area of the squad he has vastly improved is in the loose forwards, and the depth of quality evident throughout their back row could be the key to them improving vastly on their fourth-place finish in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Harmon’s addition to offset the loss of one-cap All Blacks openside flanker Dillon Hunt to the Blues, giving former captain James Lentjes plenty of competition for the starting No. 7 role.
It’s at blindside flanker and No. 8 where the competition to make the starting XV will really heat up, though.
In 2020, Shannon Frizell and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u shone from the side and the base of the scrum for the Highlanders, ending the campaign as two of the form loose forwards of the competition.
However, their places in the starting teams are by no means secure due to the recruitment of two key figures, Kazuki Himeno and Liam Squire.
Himeno, one of Japan’s top performers at last year’s World Cup, and Squire, a 23-test All Black who established himself as a Highlanders icon between 2016 and 2019, are both world-class and will be vital members of the squad next season.
In essence, their arrivals makes it a four-way scrap with Frizell and Mikaele-Tu’u for two spots in the loose forward trio, alongside Harmon’s and Lentjes’ battle for No. 7, and that’s not even taking into account this year’s impact sub Teariki Ben-Nicholas.
There is plenty to like about the make-up of the squad that Brown has brought together, and the recapture of the head coach himself, but it might well be those in the loose forwards who prove to be integral to the next Highlanders resurgence.
By Alex McLeod, RugbyPass