Home Rugby Super Rugby Preview: Star-Studded NZ Conference Will Be A Joy To Behold

Super Rugby Preview: Star-Studded NZ Conference Will Be A Joy To Behold

With the new Super Rugby season getting underway this weekend, we are taking a look at each of the three conferences ahead of the big kick-off.

On Monday, we previewed the Australian Conference, which includes Japanese side Sunwolves as well as the four Aussie teams after the exclusion of the Western Force for this season.

Here we look at the New Zealand Conference – where some of the best club sides in world rugby will battle it out for to top the group – while a few others will be confident of securing a wildcard spot at the very least.

New Zealand Conference

Blues

What are their chances?

It’s tough to say with the Blues, they have undoubtedly been making progress under Tana Umaga’s tutelage and will probably challenge for the play-offs again.

Whether they’ll make it is another story. The losses of Charlie Faumuina, Rene Ranger, and Steven Luatua, the latter to Pat Lam’s Bristol, won’t help their cause.

Unfortunately, fifth in the New Zealand Conference and missing out on the play-offs is on the cards for Umaga and Co.

What makes them interesting?

Well, if you’re a fan of superstars, the Blues possess a current one in Sonny Bill Williams, and a future one in Rieko Ioane, World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of 2017.

Ioane’s brother Akira isn’t half bad either. Also if you’re a fan of attractive rugby the Blues, like all the New Zealand sides, will duly deliver.

If they were a PRO14 team they’d be…

Edinburgh. They have potential to make the play-offs, but probably won’t. A relatively new coach have seen improvements but it seems too soon.

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Chiefs

What are their chances?

Not as good as in previous years. They’ve lost Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Cruden, Michael Leitch, and of course James Lowe in the off-season, along with Dave Rennie, whose new side Glasgow Warriors have been imperious in the PRO14.

They do, however, still possess an extremely talented group of players, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown, Brad Weber and Shaun Stevenson are exciting young players.

Stevenson, still only 21, is the only of that quartet not yet capped by the All Blacks.

They also have experience in Liam Messam, Charlie Ngatai, if he stays fit, and Samoan international Tim Nanai-Williams.

Their new coach, Colin Cooper, worked wonders with Taranaki and had a decent spell in charge of the Hurricanes from 2003 to 2010, how he fares in Super Rugby’s 2017 vintage will be intriguing.

Third place in the conference, while making the play-offs with a wildcard spot would represent a decent effort by the Chiefs.

What makes them interesting?

The 2012 and 2013 champions can be irresistible when on top form.

Players like Damian McKenzie, joined this year by his older brother Marty, and Stevenson can turn a game on its head with one moment of brilliance.

They can also score great team tries, have a look at Toni Pulu’s try in against the Stormers last year for an example. In fact, look at the highlights of the game because it was one of the best last season.

If they were a PRO14 team they’d be…

Scarlets. They play some outstanding rugby and possess exciting attacking players, and like the Scarlets they should be in the mix come the play-offs.

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Crusaders

What are their chances?

Very good, they are many peoples favourites. The Crusaders possess a plethora of All Blacks in their forward pack, which, when deployed in the 2-4-2 system, stretches teams.

This allows their loose forwards and their backs to shine. Forwards Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read would be in many people’s world XV, while backs such as Ryan Crotty, and Richie Mo’unga are highly rated and with good reason.

Their backline is young, and while it might not possess the stand-out superstars of other teams they are very good players and Director of Rugby Scott Robinson has the whole team singing from the same hymn sheet.

They are the second best team in New Zealand and should make the semi-finals of the entire competition.

What makes them interesting?

Ronan O’Gara is their new backs coach. It will be interesting to see how O’Gara gets on in one of the most intense rugby environments in the world, and he could come back to Munster and Ireland having learned an awful lot.

It will also be particularly interesting to see how he works with Richie Mo’unga who, with Lima Sopoaga leaving for Wasps at the end of the current Super Rugby Season, is the best bet to go to the 2019 RWC as second choice fly-half for the All Blacks.

If they were a Pro 14 team they’d be…

Leinster. The best team in the competition. Previous powerhouses who again look ready and capable to dominate. They have a seemingly perfect mix of youth and experience, and a huge amount of depth.

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Highlanders

What are their chances?

They’ll be aiming for the play-offs but it might be more difficult for them this year.

Since they won the competition in 2015, the Highlanders have lost coaches Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown to the Japanese national set-up.

However, they do still possess Ben Smith, the best full-back in world rugby, and Aaron Smith, the second best scrum-half behind Conor Murray.

The likes of Lima Sopoaga, Liam Squire and Waisake Naholo are All Blacks with good reason.

All that said, they may only come fourth in the conference. The wildcard system means that this will still give them a shout at making the play-offs.

What makes them interesting?

When the Highlanders are at their best, like all New Zealand teams, they are great to watch.

They vary up their attack, and Ben Smith is a joy to watch, his balanced running with the ball in two hands, calmness under the high ball and brilliant running lines are just about everything you would want from a full-back.

If they were a PRO14 team they’d be…

Connacht. A team who under the guidance of an excellent coach and some brilliant players shocked everyone with a recent title victory.

However, with both teams, that coach and some influential players have now moved on.

They still have the ability to claim a few scalps in derby matches, and might just sneak into the play-offs.

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Hurricanes

What are their chances?

Very good. The Hurricanes backline is terrifyingly talented, TJ Perenara, Jordie and Beauden Barrett, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Ngani Laumape and Julian Savea are all All Blacks while Vince Aso and Wes Goosen could easily be in the future.

The Barrett brothers, in particular, were excellent last year which lead to Jordi making his All Blacks debut against the Lions and Bauden winning World Player of the Year, again.

Their pack includes Ardie Savea, Dane Coles and Vaea Fifita who starred for the All Blacks last year.

Top of the New Zealand Conference and contenders for the overall Super Rugby title.

What makes them interesting?

In my book, they play the best attacking rugby in the competition.

Beauden Barrett has the pace and footwork to tear defences apart from fly-half, Ngani Laumape and the Savea brothers have the muscle to get them over the gain line, along with many of their loose forwards.

Then there’s Perenara’s brilliant support lines from scrum-half, Jordie Barrett replicating his brother while also offering a cross-field kick option, and then you have Wes Goosen and Nehe Milner-Skudder offering lethal and dazzling footwork.

If they were a PRO14 team they’d be…

Glasgow Warriors. Recent winners of the competition and perennial contenders before that.

They’ve since lost that title but they seem well set for a serious title challenge this year, and on the way, they will entertain anyone who watches them with their excellent attacking play.

Evan O’Connor, Pundit Arena

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