2020 Super Rugby – New Zealand Conference Preview

The 2020 Super Rugby season is extremely close to kicking into gear and it all rips into action with a cracking New Zealand derby clash. The New Zealand conference has delivered the champion side every season since the Waratahs victory in 2014. With those highs, there has been the Blues, I mean the lows. Not all New Zealand sides start the season equal, Crusaders, and in the following I will take a look how these teams are shaping up after the off season.

BLUES – 2019 5th in NZ – Failed to make Playoffs

It’s a tough life to be a Blues fan. They continue to talk about the glory days of the late 90s and early 2000s, the last time they had a good fly half, how important pre-season results are and how this year is their year. Lets not fall into their trap and instead look forward to what this new season will be like for the Blues. At the head of the team nothing has changed, Leon McDonald is still at the helm which leaves many questions right out of the blocks. The holes you can pick in this Blues team have been the same for a number of years now, ten ten ten ten ten… On both sides on the ten it looks promising, but without that link it will never flourish. Of course YES they have signed Beauden Barrett, but without him featuring until April, it may well be too little too late for the Blues.

We knew and expected the movements of Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams after their walking frames kept getting stuck in the Eden Park turf during the weekends. The veterans and icons of Blues and All Blacks rugby go on there way after a season where the two midfielders hardly ever flirted with the idea of being played together by coach McDonald. A real shame. Augustine Pulu never set the number nine shirt of fire but offered a degree of experience and a threat with ball in hand but off he goes to Japan. Michael Collins and Jordan Trainor also end their time at the Blues. The Blues have delivered the biggest transfer this season with the name of Barrett, but again, April everyone, they need someone to stand up until then. With scrum halves Finlay Christie, Sam Nock and Jonathan Ruru needing to find a friend at fly half out of Otere Black, Jack Heighton, Stephen Perofeta and Harry Plummer, it looks like a tough spot to make a call. Joe Marchant is the real name of interest in the backline. The ‘Quins center has an aura of interest around him in the build up and it’s exciting to see how he will go in Super Rugby.

This side boast a stack of quality names in the forwards. A front row that can throw out All Blacks Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tu’ungafasi will do you well in the scrums. The loss of Scott Scrafton will hurt the locking depth but Gerard Cowley-Tuioti is a quality player to put with All Black Patrick Tuipulotu. The backrow has gained some additions with Tony Lamborn returning to Super Rugby again and the possible potential of James Tucker also joins the ranks. After impressive first seasons, Dalton Papalii and Tom Robinson return to the Blues. The Blues have looked good on paper for a number of years now, but as the saying goes, rugby is a game played on grass. The fear of how bad it could be when Barrett arrives kills the vibe of his transfer, but if the Blues can hold things together until then, they could be in the hunt for playoffs. Third to fifth will be tight.

Predicted finish: 5th

Backs
Beauden Barrett, Otere Black, Finlay Christie, Caleb Clarke, Matt Duffie, TJ Faiane, Jack Heighton, Jordan Hyland, Rieko Ioane, Joe Marchant, Emoni Narawa, Sam Nock, Jared Page, Stephen Perofeta, Harry Plummer, Jonathan Ruru, Mark Telea, Tanielu Tele’a

Forwards
Aaron Carroll, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Kurt Eklund, Blake Gibson, Josh Goodhue, Alex Hodgman, Akira Ioane, Tony Lamborn, Ezekiel Lindenmuth, Sione Mafileo, Ray Niuia, Dalton Papalii, James Parsons, Jacob Pierce, Marcel Renata, Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa, Tom Robinson, Hoskins Sotutu, James Tucker, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tu’ungafasi

Paul from the DrivingMaul joins me to go over the NZ Conference.

CHIEFS – 2019 3rd in NZ. Knocked out in Quarterfinal

There’s a new Chief in town this season and he goes by the name of Warren Gatland. The former Welsh and current B&I Lions coach has returned home and is giving Chiefs fans reasons to be excited for the upcoming season. The style of play the Chiefs come out with will be most intriguing to see the effort Gatland has had on this side. An old favorite has come home and a current star is fit. Has the Chiefs time come again?

While Barrett might not have time to save the Blues, the Chiefs will be looking to former All Black Aaron Cruden to lead this ship which of course means anyone who favours Damian McKenzie at fullback better get excited! The extremely talented McKenzie who missed the juicy end of the 2019 season is finally back to full fitness and desperate to fire with his side. Jack Debreczeni and Stephen Donald held last season together just enough with a bandaid but now leave the side. They will miss the impact Ataata Moeakiola had on the wings, the electric Japanese player was fun to watch. Its mainly good news coming in though, Quinn Tupaea looks exceptional at Mitre 10 Cup level and could quickly make the step up. More youth will learn from Cruden in the form of Kaleb Trask in the tens. Match all that up with the already stacked backline of guys like Brad Weber, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tumura Manu, Alex Nankivell, Solomon Alaimalo and Etene Nanai-Seturo, this Chiefs team will be hot under the sun this early in the year.

You can have all the backs firepower you like, but if the pack doesn’t give the service then they may as well be tackle bags. There’s some serious talent on the out for the Chiefs, Kane Hames with a serious injury, Mitch Jacobson is trying his best to destroy his career with a move to the Sunwolves, Jesse Parete is up for a fight at the Highlanders and Taleni Seu has cashed in to Japan. Oh yes, I did leave out one man, who almost needs his own paragraph, Brodie Retallick. Without the one man alone will see this Chiefs side drop down a step or two in the forwards battle. One of the worlds best for years, Retallick is a leader and a champion fighter. You can not replace a guy like that, he’s just too good. The Chiefs have not gone nuts trying to either, keeping it simple and picking up players from the Mitre 10 Cup. For a touch of experience they have brought in Adam Thompson which is a clever move even if expected to not see much game time. His wise head will be an asset for the new group in the pack. The flanks do look strong, Sam Cane, Lachlan Boshier, Mitchell Karpik, Luke Jacobson and Pita Gus Sowakula are all top class at this level. In late late Chiefs new, hooker Nathan Harris has just gone down with a season ending injury just before the season kicks off, putting big pressure on those sitting behind him.

Predicted finish: 2nd

Backs
Solomon Alaimalo, Leroy Carter, Aaron Cruden, Tiaan Falcon, Orbyn Leger, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tumua Manu, Damian McKenzie, Sam McNicol, Lisati Milo-Harris, Kini Naholo, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Alex Nankivell, Shaun Stevenson, Bailyn Sullivan, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Kaleb Trask, Quinn Tupaea, Sean Wainui, Brad Weber

Forwards
Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Michael Allardice, Tyler Ardron, Lachlan Boshier, Mitchell Brown, Sam Cane, Robb Cobb, Ryan Coxon, Ross Geldenhuys, Nathan Harris, Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Karpik, Nepo Laulala, Donald Maka, Laghlan McWhannell, Atu Moli, Dylan Nel, Ollie Norris, Reuben O’Neill, Aidan Ross, Bradley Slater, Pita Gus Sowakula, Angus Ta’avao, Samisoni Taukei’aho, James Thompson, Adam Thomson, Tupou Vaa’i

CRUSADERS – 2019 1st in NZ. CHAMPIONS

It has been a long season of off field changes for the champions and with it has come a new look image for the team. Love or hate the changes, this team is still the one to beat. A huge amount of personnel changes but the depth and talent belt that is Tasman and Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup has this side looking suitably prepared for the new season. Good reason why its called the conveyor belt of talent that just keep rolling them out….

You would be hard pressed to find any club side that could lose all these world class players in one team and still give off enough to make you confident they will still perform as one of the best. Let’s start at the front row and go through to extreme calibre of quality and experience lost for this season. Owen Franks (Saints), Tim Perry, Ben Funnell (Japan), Sam Whitelock (Japan), Jordan Taufua (Leicester Tigers), Matt Todd (Japan), Kieran Read (Japan), Mitchell Hunt (Highlanders), Time Bateman (Japan), Ryan Crotty (Japan) and Israel Dagg (retired). If any side can deal with that kind of exodus, it’s the Crusaders and lets be honest, this team still looks like it’s going to crusade on. The fact most of those names are former All Blacks means that Crusaders are very well equipped to being without them during rest periods and with that have superb depth to cover.

With that being a similar story for the Crusaders they have not recruited too many new faces into their side. Tom Christie and Cullen Grace from Canterbury, Sione Havili from Tasman and their only player to join from outside their catchment area, Ethan Roots from North Harbour, are the only forwards to join the squad. Their pack still has its spine, Joe Moody, Michael Alaalatoa, Codie Taylor, Andrew Makalio, Scott Barrett, Luke Romano, Whetu Douglas are all still about and will be the rock of the side. The area the may cause some concern is at fly half where a Richie Mo’unga injury could create a break in the armour. With Mo’unga being a current All Black also means he will have to abide by the playing time limits on them this season. This means a some pressure will be dumped on the shoulders of “Mr One Cap” Brett Cameron after Mitch Hunt left for the Highlanders. Four more additions from Canterbury and Tasman come into the backline but with the talent there in Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue, George Bridge, Will Jordan, Manasa Mataele (missed a lot of 2019 due to injury), Sevu Reece and David Havili, you can expect plenty more tries and still the toughest side to topple in Super Rugby.

Predicted finish: 1st

Backs
George Bridge, Fergus Burke, Brett Cameron, Mitchell Drummond, Ere Enari, Braydon Ennor, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Inga Finau, Jack Goodhue, Bryn Hall, David Havili, Will Jordan, Manasa Mataele, Dallas McLeod, Richie Mo’unga, Fetuli Paea, Sevu Reece

Forwards
Michael Alaalatoa, Harry Allan, Scott Barrett, Ethan Blackadder, George Bower, Tom Christie, Whetu Douglas, Mitchell Dunshea, Cullen Grace, Billy Harmon, Sione Havili, Oliver Jager, Andrew Makalio, Brodie McAlister, Joe Moody, Luke Romano, Ethan Roots, Tom Sanders, Quinten Strange, Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, Isi Tu’ungafasi

HIGHLANDERS – 2019 4th in NZ – Knocked out in Quarterfinal

For season after season its been the same old story for the Highlanders. “Not enough depth”, “any injuries will destroy their season” blah blah blah. Doubters of the Highlanders is nothing new heading into a Super Rugby season. The massive asset to this team is having Tony Brown in the coaching setup, he is one of the best backs coaches in the world currently and his abilities will be priceless to whoever will line up in this backline.

Regardless of what Brown can do, this Highlanders side has lost a tonne of experience. It’s a long list: Tyrel Lomax (Hurricanes), Tom Franklin (Japan), Jackson Hemopo (Japan), Luke Whitelock (Pau), Elliot Dixon (Japan), Liam Squire (Japan), Marty Banks (Japan), Richard Buckman (Japan), Matt Faddes (Ulster), Tevita Li (Japan), Waisake Naholo (London Irish) and of course the biggest of all Ben Smith (Pau). It’s hard to give all these guys the credit for how much they will be missed in a short page like this but most rugby fans around the world will understand the scale of these losses. The forward pack has struggled its way through seasons in the past and this year will be no different, if not worse. Luke, the rebel Whitelock, has captained this side well over recent years and his combination with Dixon and Squire will be a power game the Highlanders will sorely miss. They are a team of cult figures and team legends who really connect with the fans and whose talents are often only fully understood by Highlanders fans. Im talking guys like Richard Buckman and Marty Banks to name but a couple. Of course we must talk about the back three. Li, Naholo and Smith have dominated the workload in those positions and been a reliable source of finishing the rare chances the Highlanders often muster. If they are to find more success, they need guys who can take the chances when they are handed to them, cause it’s unlikely to be many.

Are there any breadcrumbs left for the Highlanders and what new faces should we look out for this season? There is still a good bite of the apple left in this team. Where other teams struggle in the halves jumpers, the Highlanders will be well catered for. Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington and Folau Fakatava are all scrum halves most sides would be pleased to name. Josh Ioane will be number one ten, but the addition of Mitchell Hunt is a tidy signing when Ioane needs to step aside. His experience with the Crusaders will be crucial as well as proven ability at this level. Rob Thompson, Sio Tomkinson, Tei Walden and Thomas Umaga-Jensen will take care of the midfield and on occasionally the wings too. One name you need to watch is Josh McKay. He had an electric Mitre 10 Cup and looks set to explode onto the scene this season. Jona Nareki from Otago looks to have a bright future and depth in versatility with Michael Collins who has come south from the Blues.

In the forwards it has to be an open and fast game plan, with any power players having to come from new signings. Shannon Frizell is going to carry the weight of that strong game because all around him are quality, but smaller, flankers. It would be exciting to see Dillon Hunt and James Lentjies see game time together and go for the real speed ruck game. Zane Kapeli would woo the crowds with his aggressive style of play but again ultimately is a zippy forward just like Jesse Parete who was enticed from the Chiefs. Pari Pari Parkinson needs to carry the second row with a pretty light naming of locks. You can quickly tell how this team will play, it has to be all about speed, attack and open play. If opposition allow them the chance to run and get around the field, the Highlanders are a side they will over run you. To beat this team, go with power. South African sides may enjoy the Highlanders if they can get on top of the game, but the flipside is the Highlanders will look to run the big packs ragged. Set piece is going to be the decisive factor, hold onto the ball to avoid scrums, play a simple lineout game and take every chance like its your last… Because it may well be. Tony Brown is not a silly man and I think this team will upset a few sides who chuckle away thinking how bad they will be without those who left. As always, year after year, underestimate the Highlanders at your peril.

Predicted finish: 3rd

Backs
Michael Collins, Tima Fainga’anuku, Folau Fakatava, Bryn Gatland, Scott Gregory, Kayne Hammington, Mitchell Hunt, Josh Ioane, Chris Kuridrani, Josh McKay, Tevita Nabura, Jona Nareki, Ngane Punivai, Aaron Smith, Rob Thompson, Sio Tomkinson, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Teihorangi Walden

Forwards
Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Liam Coltman, Ethan de Groot, Josh Dickson, Ash Dixon, Shannon Frizell, Jackson Hemopo, Dillon Hunt, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Zane Kapeli, James Lentjes, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Sione Misiloi, Jesse Parete, Pari Pari Parkinson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Jeff Thwaites, Siate Tokolahi, Nathan Vella, Jack Whetton

HURRICANES – 2019 2nd in NZ – Knocked out in Semifinal

Finally, it’s the time of the Hurricanes. Overall there is about three transfers leading the headlines in this side. Before we get to those, its another new coach. This time Jason Holland has been promoted from assistant in the place of John Plumtree. One man leaving this team has gained all the attention, but don’t let that fool you, this team still has a whole heap of quality.

Let’s get the big obvious one out of the way first. Yep, Beauden Barrett has gone. Time to move on Hurricanes fans, you nurtured him through all those young years, enjoyed watching him grow, but now hes a big boy and is off to the big city. Time to start again….. A number of long term club players have joined him on the way out. Chris Eves has tried his best to shoot his career in the foot by joining the Sunwolves, Toby Smith has retired, Sam Lousi has seen red joining the Scarlets, Matt proctor has become a Saint and the living injury Nehe Milner-Skudder has gone to wine and dine in Toulon. None of that is all too exciting. A lot of broken and old squad players, again, time to move on Hurricanes.

So this is where it gets really exciting, the in’s. The biggest signing for this side is one of the biggest men in this team. Tyrel Lomax from the Highlanders. The 23 year old prop is going places in rugby and he’s going there fast. Hes shown the ability to hold up his scrum against the best around and was a huge part of how the Highlanders managed to do just enough against the more powerful sides last season. Going a bit under the radar as far as new signings go, I am really excited to see what Jamie Booth can do in the Hurricanes setup. An outstanding season last year with the Sunwolves really propelled Booth as a capable number nine. Great service to his backline, solid kicking when required and a snappy running game that often caught defences off guard. The Hurricanes will have to manage the workload of TJ Perenara over the season, which leaves a fantastic backup and depth at scrumhalf. Lastly I wanted to finish up this Hurricanes team with the concerning selection. Kobus van Wyk from the Sharks. It worries me for a number of reasons, from both perspectives. For the ‘Canes and NZ Rugby it makes me wonder if the lack of depth in the outside backs positions is so weak currently that we are looking for it from overseas. Now don’t get me wrong here, van Wyk is a solid player who will do a good job if and when called on in this team, but he’s not a world class player who will draw and wow crowds like say Cheslin Kolbe would for example. For the player, I question what impact or assistance this will have on his career. He will sit behind a good number of players already and his chance of game time is rather rare when Wes Goosen, Ben Lam, Chase Tiatia and Jonah Lowe won’t have to sit any time out like All Blacks would have, which would make more sense for his addition. Is he going to gain anything in Wellington? Is it the experience to travel the world? I’d like to think he has good personal reason and it’s for the love of the game and opportunity to see the world.

It’s also going to be a huge season for Fletcher Smith. The young fly half has the take the reigns left from Barrett and set himself up for a long career in control. He couldn’t ask for a better time or place to do it currently. All Blacks inside and out, with Perenara who will draw inside defenders away and Ngani Laumape who will draw half a country away to look after him. He’s got the perfect bailout plan, give it to Laumape, catch and pass. Perenara wont put him under pressure and will lump it on himself if need be. It’s the perfect time to shine for Smith, let’s hope his top two inches are quality too and he could develop into another gem at the Hurricanes.

Predicted finish: 4th

Backs
Vince Aso, Jordie Barrett, Jamie Booth, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Wes Goosen, Ben Lam, Ngani Laumape, Jonah Lowe, James Marshall, TJ Perenara, Billy Proctor, Fletcher Smith, Jonathan Taumateine, Chase Tiatia, Danny Toala, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Kobus van Wyk

Forwards
Fraser Armstrong, Asafo Aumua, James Blackwell, Dane Coles, Gareth Evans, Alex Fidow, Vaea Fifita, Devan Flanders, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Kane Le’aupepe, Tyrel Lomax, Ben May, Liam Mitchell, Xavier Numia, Reed Prinsep, Pouri Rakete-Stones, Ricky Riccitelli, Ardie Savea, Scott Scrafton, Murphy Taramai, Isaia Walker-Leawere

It’s been a very long and extensive look at the five teams in the New Zealand conference for Super Rugby in 2020. This stuffs just too easy to write about! What are your thoughts about these sides? Who is your champion? Standout players? Or disappointments? Let me know in the comments and as always, thanks for stopping by, Behind The Posts.

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