With the start of the 2012 Super Rugby season less than a week away, the TRF Staff have taken a close look at each of the 15 teams involved. In the first of the previews we examine the New Zealand conference, the most competitive conference last season, with only 21 points separating the top team in the conference (the Crusaders) and the bottom team (the Chiefs). There are a number of strong New Zealand franchises again this season, but there are still a number of unanswered questions: Can the depleted Hurricanes avoid the wooden spoon? Will the addition of Piri Weepu allow the the Blues to finally reach their potential? Will the Highlanders continue to show improvement under Jamie Joseph? Can the Crusaders win their 8th Super Rugby title? Will the Chiefs forwards be able to deliver enough quality ball to their talented backline?
TRF_Nickdnz and TRF_Darwin attempt to answer these questions, and more, in the TRF New Zealand Conference Super Rugby preview:
2011 Record: 6 wins, 1 draw, 9 losses (40 points) - 10th Overall
The Chiefs have been the perennial strugglers of the New Zealand franchises. While rarely being in danger of the wooden spoon, the Chiefs have consistently struggled to stay in the top half of the table in every season. In 2009 it looked like the Chiefs fortunes had changed, beating the Hurricanes for a spot in the finals, only to be put to the sword in a devastating 61-17 loss to the Bulls. Since then the Chiefs have continued their average form, finishing 11th in 2010 and 10th in 2011. The Chiefs luck seems to be improving though with Ian Foster, unsuccessful coach of seven seasons with the Chiefs, being given higher honours as assistant coach of the All Blacks, and his replacement being the highly respected Dave Rennie. Though they have suffered some important losses the Chiefs have recruited well in the off season, with All Black come boxer Sonny Bill Williams sure to help fill some gaps in the stadiums.
Major additions / losses:
The Chiefs were hit fairly hard with the loss of some fringe All Blacks and seasoned internationals. The loss of Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Tana Umaga, Stephen Donald, Mike Delany, Isaac Ross, Aled de Malmanche and Taniela Moa will undoubtedly leave the Chiefs with a few less internationals, however the recruitment of Mahonri Schwaler and Robbie Robinson from the Highlanders, Aaron Cruden from the Hurricanes and Sonny Bill Williams from the Crusaders should offer Chiefs fans some hope of an exciting - if not improved - season. As mentioned previously, the other major additions to the Chiefs are in the coaching staff with Dave Rennie and former All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith looking to fill the not too considerable shoes of current All Black assistant coach Ian Foster.
Loose forward Liam Messam will be an important part of this Chiefs side sharing the captaincy with the veteran lock Craig Clarke. Being left out of the Rugby World Cup squad, Messam will have a point to prove to regain selection for the All Blacks. Joining Messam the Chiefs have three of the best openside flankers in New Zealand in All Blacks Scott Waldrom, Tanerau Latimer and the promising young prospect Sam Cane. All are competing for that openside jersey, with Waldrom also a good option at blindside if Messam or Fritz Lee are injured. The backline is especially dangerous with Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams presenting one of the most promising combinations in the competition. The back three look equally as dangerous, if a little raw, with one cap All Blacks and try scoring machine Lelia Masaga being joined by some of the best young talent in the world in Robbie Robinson, Tim Nanai-Williams and Declan O'Donnell.
Props: Ben Afeaki, Shane Cleaver, Toby Smith, Sona Taumololo, Ben Tameifuna
Hookers: Hika Elliot, Mahonri Schwalger
Locks: Craig Clarke (c), Brodie Retallick, Romana Graham, Michael Fitzgerald, Kane Thompson
Loose forwards: Fritz Lee, Sam Cane, Scott Waldrom, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam (c), Alex Bradley
Halfbacks: Brendan Leonard, Tawera Kerr-Barlow
First-five eighths: Aaron Cruden, Andrew Horrell
Centres: Sonny Bill Williams, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Richard Kahui, Jackson Willison
Wingers: Lelia Masaga, Declan O'Donnell, Maritino Nemani
Fullbacks: Robbie Robinson, Tim Nanai-Williams
Possible starting XV:
1. Toby Smith, 2. Hika Elliot, 3. Ben Afeaki, 4. Craig Clarke (c), 5. Brodie Retallick, 6. Liam Messam (c), 7. Scott Waldrom, 8. Fritz Lee, 9. Brendan Leonard, 10. Aaron Cruden, 11. Declan O'Donnell, 12. Sonny Bill Williams, 13. Richard Kahui, 14. Lelia Masaga, 15. Tim Nanai-Williams
The bottom line:
The Chiefs have a squad which has a huge amount of attacking potential. Their major issue is their tight five, with a propping combo that is young and relatively inexperienced and locking rotation that relies entirely on Craig Clark to provide the grunt. The loss of so many players has decimated the Chiefs depth somewhat and areas such as the tight five will really struggle if there are any injuries. This being said, the addition of Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith should make any Chiefs fan hopeful of a better season than they have learnt to expect under Rennie.
Predicted finish in 2012: 9th
2011 Record: 5 wins, 2 draws, 9 losses (42 points) - 9th Overall
The Hurricanes have been one of the least lucky teams in the competition: despite making the semi-finals six times and the final once, the Hurricanes have never gone on to win the competition. The team has often had a roster full of the greatest talent in the world with players such as Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu and Jerry Collins. The Hurricanes of last season indeed had twelve All Blacks to their roster and only managed to finish 9th. Given these circumstances, it is no wonder that every Hurricanes fan is dreading the upcoming season, with their roster of 12 All Blacks being poached, stolen or chucked out to the point of three remaining All Blacks. Renowned for their exciting helter skelter back play the Hurricanes squad of this season is expected to finish bottom of their conference. The team, coached by one time Crusaders assistant coach Mark Hammett, will be under a huge amount of pressure to perform given the large number of players that have left.
Major additions / losses:
Out of all the teams, the Hurricanes have been one of the most unfortunate in terms of player losses. The losses of All Blacks Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, John Schwalger, Bryn Evans, Rodney So'oialo, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Hosea Gear and Ma'a Nonu will be devastating to any chance the Hurricanes may have had of making the playoffs. The most distressing aspect for Hurricanes fans is that Mark Hammett hasn't secured any big name players in the off season, instead recruiting a mix of journeymen and inexperienced players.
Ben May, Dane Coles and Michael Bent will likely offer little in the way of scrummaging compared to the solid All Black front row of Tialata, Hore and Schwalger. The loss comes at an even larger scale with the loss of the experience and leadership of Andrew Hore, who was fired while still captain last season. Despite the loss of So'oialo, the aging veteran would have seen no or little game time this season anyway, and Hurricane fans can look forward to seeing All Black Victor Vito having a decent depth of loose forwards to partner him. New flanker Brad Shields has looked very promising for Wellington in the ITM Cup, while Karl Lowe has returned from an injury which kept him out all of last season. Jack Lam and Faifili Levave also had good seasons last year, and there should be no real issue of depth in the loose forwards.
With the loss of Alby Mathewson to the Blues several seasons ago and now Piri Weepu joining him, the Hurricanes look very thin at halfback. Chris Smylie is solid at ITM Cup level, but has looked a little out of his depth in his many seasons in and out of Super Rugby. Chris Eaton hasn't looked like he's at ITM Cup level and TJ Peranara is still just a teenager with promise. Samoan international Tusi Pisi joins the Hurricanes from Suntory Sungoliath in Japan which should offer a little bit of consolation for losing the only All Black first five-eighths the Hurricanes have ever had in Aaron Cruden and Piri Weepu.
Charlie Ngatai has looked good in between injury spells, but still won't be able to replace the impact Ma'a Nonu had. Conrad Smith has taken over captaincy and is one of the most consistent and intelligent players in the game. His combination with Ma'a Nonu being the longest centre pairings in All Black and Super Rugby history, and will likely be missed during the following season.
The back three has usually been the Hurricanes biggest strength and even with the loss of Hosea Gear, still looks fairly good. Julian Savea was IRB Young Player of the Year in 2010 however hasn't backed it up in recent seasons. He will be looking for a big season to show off some of his raw talent. All Black Cory Jane remains in the squad after rumours of him heading to Ulster were dismissed, and his form will be one of the most vital components to the Hurricanes avoiding their worst season.
Victor Vito is one of the best loose forwards in New Zealand and was rewarded with a call up during the Rugby World Cup. A very fast and athletic ball carrier, he will want to continue to improve his grunt work in the loose to retain his spot in the All Blacks. Conrad Smith takes over as captain and he is one of, if not the best centres in the world, so it will be interesting to see how he organizes and directs his inexperienced players. Cory Jane was vital in the World Cup win over Australia in the semi-finals, showing just how good his aerial skills are, as well as his elusive running game and world class fend. His last season in the Hurricanes was an average one by his standards, and he will be looking to improve despite the loss of long time left wing Hosea Gear.
Props: Michael Bent, Reggie Goodes, Ben May, Tristan Moran, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen
Hookers: Dane Coles, David Hall, Motu Matu'u
Locks: James Broadhurst, Jason Eaton, Mark Reddish, Jeremy Thrush
Loose forwards: Victor Vito, Jack Lam, Brad Shields, Karl Lowe, Faifili Levave
Halfbacks: Chris Eaton, Chris Smylie, TJ Peranara
First-five eighths: Beauden Barrett, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Tusi Pisi
Centres: Tim Bateman, Jayden Hayward, Charlie Ngatai, Conrad Smith (c)
Wingers: Richard Buckman, Alapati Leiua, Julian Savea, Andre Taylor
Fullbacks: Cory Jane
Possible starting XV:
1. Michael Bent, 2. Dane Coles, 3. Ben May, 4. Jeremy Thrush, 5. James Broadhurst, 6. Victor Vito, 7. Karl Lowe, 8. Brad Shields, 9. TJ Peranara, 10. Beuden Barrett, 11. Julian Savea, 12. Charlie Ngatai, 13. Conrad Smith (c), 14. Andre Taylor, 15. Cory Jane
The bottom line:
The Hurricanes will likely be fighting off the wooden spoon this season. They may manage a few upsets, however their lack of experience, quality and depth will likely count against them.
Predicted finish in 2012: 12th
2011 Record: 8 wins, 8 loses (45 points) – 8th Overall
The Highlanders have a very mixed Super Rugby record – after struggling during the first couple of Super rugby seasons, they were consistently among the top teams for a number of years, making the playoffs four times between 1998 and 2002. However from 2003 until the beginning of the 2011 season the Highlanders franchise was in steady decline, consistently finishing near the bottom of the table, and with crowd numbers for home games dwindling.
However, the Highlanders experienced a rather dramatic change in fortune in 2011. They obtained a new coach - former Otago and Highlanders loose forward Jamie Joseph - along with a raft of talented young players. Despite only finishing eighth in 2011 (with a 50% winning record), the season was considered a resounding success. There were a number of highlights during the season, including away victories versus the Bulls in Pretoria and the Crusaders in Nelson. The Highlanders were among the competition leaders for much of the season, before a late season slump saw them lose their last four games. This slump was precipitated largely by a lack of depth in key positions, with a number of players forced to play every match.
2011 was not without controversy though, with the franchise management introducing a new lime green playing kit – a decision that was not received well by fans. The kit has been confirmed for the 2012 season, though the franchise has back-tracked somewhat, with the lime green kit to be used only for away matches, and the traditional blue strip maintained for home matches. The Highlanders also have a new home ground in 2012, the new - fully enclosed - Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Major additions / losses:
The Highlanders have been major benefactors of the disruption at the Hurricanes, snaring discarded All Blacks Hosea Gear and Andrew Hore. Hore returns to his region of birth, where he made his provincial debut for Otago almost 15 years ago. He is expected to make a big impact on the team with his leadership, strong work at the set piece, and his ability to act as a 4th loose-forward around the field. Hosea Gear is also a key signing for the Highlanders, and should add much needed physicality to the Highlanders backline. Another major signing is utility back Tamati Ellison, whose ability to play multiple backline positions at a very high level make him a valuable asset.
The key addition to the forward pack is English loose-forward James Haskell, who will add some real physicality to the Highlanders forwards. His ability to play all three loose-forward positions is an advantage, and his dynamic playing style is ideally suited to Super Rugby. Other additions in the forwards include openside flanker Doug Tietjens and prop Ma’afu Fia (both from Manawatu), and former Chiefs lock Culum Retallick.
Alando Soakai is the only starting player lost by the Highlanders in 2012, having transferred to Japanese club Kubota Spears. Key reserves Tom Donnelly and Mahonri Schwalgher have transferred to other New Zealand franchises (the Crusaders and Chiefs respectively); Donnelly's experience and lineout ability will be particularly missed. In the backline, utility Robbie Robinson has moved to the Chiefs, while Tony Brown, who filled in admirably when called into the squad last season, has retired and will take up a position coaching the Otago ITM Cup side.
Andrew Hore will be a key player up front, while loose-forward Adam Thomson will look to replicate his outstanding form last season which saw him nominated for New Zealand Super Rugby player of the year. A key signing last season, Colin Slade had much of his 2011 season ruined by injury, so will be looking to have a big season this year to repay the faith Joseph has placed in him. Ben Smith's stellar form last season saw him earn an All Blacks recall, and his ability to create opportunities with his counterattacking running from fullback will be vital for the Highlanders again this season.
Props: Ma’afu Fia, Chris King, Jamie Mackintosh ©, Bronson Murray
Hookers: Andrew Hore, Jason Rutledge
Locks: Josh Bekhuis, Jarrad Hoeata, Culum Retallick
Loose forwards: Nick Crosswell, John Hardie, Adam Thomson, Doug Tietjens, James Haskell, Elliot Dixon, Nasi Manu
Halfbacks: Jimmy Cowan, Aaron Smith
First five eighths: Chris Noakes, Colin Slade, Lima Sopoaga
Centres: Kendrick Lynn, Tamati Ellison, Shaun Treeby, Siale Piutau
Wings: Hosea Gear, Kade Poki, Telusa Veainu
Fullbacks: Kurt Baker, Ben Smith
Possible starting XV:
1. Jamie Mackintosh ©, 2. Andrew Hore, 3. Chris King, 4. Jarrad Hoeata, 5. Josh Bekhuis, 6. Adam Thomson, 7. James Haskell, 8. Nasi Manu, 9. Jimmy Cowan, 10. Colin Slade, 11. Hosea Gear, 12. Shaun Treeby, 13. Tamati Ellison, 14. Kade Poki, 15. Ben Smith
The bottom line:
The Highlanders will look to build on their promising season in 2011. With a hard working forward pack, a powerful loose forward trio, and a deadly back three they have the ability to compete with the top teams this season. However question marks remain over their front row and mid-field combinations, as well as their depth. They will likely push for a play-off spot again this season, but cannot afford the dramatic drop off in form they experienced late last season.
Predicted finish in 2012: 7th
2011 Record: 10 wins, 1 draw, 5 losses (60 Points) - 4th Overall
As one of the original teams in the competition, the Blues are historically one of the most successful teams. Having won the tournament in 1996, 1997 and 2003, the Blues have won the title the second equal most times (with the Bulls) with only the Crusaders having held it more. Despite this fact, the Blues have been characterized with under achieving in recent years, often containing a star studded squad which finishes mid table. Last season was actually their best season since 2003, finishing 4th overall and making it to a semi-final, which they lost against the eventual winners the Reds. This season the Blues will be looking to try and get a 4th title with a squad which looks like one of their best in years. After recruiting cleverly over the off season, they will be hoping their run of mediocre results ends and they stay in consistent form throughout the tournament.
Major additions / losses:
Since last season the Blues have lost their starting first-five eighth in Stephen Brett, legendary All Black winger Joe Rokocoko, All Black Luke McAlister, All Black John Afoa and Jared Payne. The loss of Stephen Brett will not concern the Blues faithful too much as he was extremely inconsistent last season, showing touches of class but constantly making errors in both his defensive and offensive play. His likely replacement is new recruit and veteran All Black Piri Weepu, who while most at home at halfback, certainly is not untested and ungifted at first-five eighth. The other option in first-five eighth is Gareth Anscombe, who showed what a reliable kicker he is at the Junior World Championships, however he is probably not ready to control a team at Super Rugby level just yet.
All Black winger Joe Rokocoko has left to play for Bayonne, and while not the electric winger of five or six seasons ago, his high work rate and solid defence was a key part of the Blues success last season. His replacement, former All Black Rudi Wulf, exhibits many of the same qualities and should help fill the gap left by Rokocoko.
In the midfield, the loss of the classy Jared Payne and Luke McAlister has been fixed with arguably the best inside centre in the world and nominee for IRB Player of the Year Ma'a Nonu. Nonu joins the Blues line up as another member of the massive player exodus from the Hurricanes, being told he would not receive a contract with the Hurricanes from Mark Hammett. The Blues are spoilt for choices in the midfield, with the option of playing Nonu at centre outside 2010 All Black Benson Stanley, or at second-five with Rene Ranger moving in from the wing, to create what could be the most destructive centre combo in recent memory.
Jerome Kaino will hopefully continue his great form that had him nominated for IRB Player of the Year. His massive work rate and effective ball carrying could be pivotal to the Blues success. Much will likely be riding on Piri Weepu's ability to control the game from first-five eighth, while Ma'a Nonu will hopefully continue the form he was in during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Arguably the best back in the competition last year, Isaia Toeava will hopefully remain injury free and work his way back in form. Rene Ranger will also look to continue his form from last season where he scored eight tries, only one less than the competitions leading try scorers.
Props: Tony Woodcock, Charlie Faumuina, Pauliasi Manu, Angus Ta'avao, Tevita Mailau
Hookers: Kevin Mealamu (c), Tom McCartney, Ash Dixon
Locks: Anthony Boric, Ali Williams, Liaki Moli, Filo Paulo
Loose forwards: Jerome Kaino, Dan Braid, Luke Braid, Chris Lowrey, Peter Saili, Brad Mika
Halfbacks: Piri Weepu, Alby Mathewson
First-five eighths: Gareth Anscombe
Centres: Michael Hobbs, Benson Stanley, Ma'a Nonu
Wingers: Rene Ranger, George Moala, Rudi Wulf, David Raikuna, Sherwin Stowers
Fullbacks: Isaia Toeava, Lachie Munro
Possible starting XV:
1. Tony Woodcock, 2. Kevin Mealamu (c), 3. Charlie Faumuina, 4. Anthony Boric, 5. Ali Williams, 6. Jerome Kaino, 7. Daniel Braid, 8. Peter Saili, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Piri Weepu, 11. Rene Ranger, 12. Benson Stanley, 13. Ma'a Nonu, 14. Rudi Wulf, 15. Isaia Toeava
The bottom line:
The Blues Squad looks like it has recruited well enough to be in contention to win the title for a fourth time. With no obvious weaknesses in the forwards or the backs and a fair amount of depth throughout the squad, the Blues do look to have a lot of potential. With that being said, the Blues have squandered talent before and have not played to their potential since 2003. With any luck this will be the season that the Blues win, or Pat Lam will start to come under pressure.
Predicted finish in 2012: 4th
2011 Record: 11 wins, 1 draw, 4 losses (61 points) - 3rd Overall
After finishing last in the inaugural Super Rugby season in 1996, the Crusaders have gone on to fashion an enviable Super Rugby record, winning the title seven times. In 2011, however, they had a season like no other. A massive earthquake in February devastated Christchurch, resulting in the deaths of 182 people, and severally damaged their home ground of AMI Stadium. Without their home ground the Crusaders were forced to move their home games to other parts of the franchise region (Timaru and Nelson), as well as areas outside their franchise region (Wellington, Napier), and they even played a historic match against the Sharks in Twickenham. Despite this disruption the Crusaders made the playoffs for the 10th straight season. By the time the Crusaders played the final - against the Reds at Suncorp Stadium - it was estimated that many of the players had travelled over 100 000 km during the season. Though they were defeated by the Reds in the final, their season was undoubtedly a success.
The Crusaders will look to add to their seven Super Rugby titles in 2012, and having not won the title since 2008 – the longest period that they have failed to win the title since the beginning of Super Rugby – the team will be particularly motivated. Despite a couple of notable departures, coach Todd Blackadder has an exceptionally strong and experienced squad to work with in 2012, led by two modern greats of the game in Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
Major additions / losses:
The Crusaders have suffered two major loses in 2012, with Brad Thorn and Sonny Bill Williams moving to Fukuoka Sanix Blues and the Chiefs respectively. Thorn will be missed not only for his phenomenal work-rate and physicality, but also for the example he set for younger players both on and off the field. Bill Williams unique ability to put others into gaps with his offloads will be missed too, leaving a three way battle for the vacant second-five eighth spot between Ryan Crotty, Tom Taylor, and Adam Whitelock. Experienced backups Kahn Fotuali’i (Ospreys) and Matt Berquist (Leinster) are also important losses as both played key roles last season when Andy Ellis and Dan Carter were out injured, while Chris Jack (Kyuden Voltex) and Jonathan Poff (London Wasps) have also departed.
There have been few notable additions for the Crusaders in the off season, with the most high profile being that of former All Black Tom Donnelly from the Highlanders. Donnelly looks set to partner Sam Whitelock in the second-row, though could be pushed by young Luke Romano. Another lock, the experienced Ross Kennedy, has been added to the squad, having played for Eastern Province last season. Four promising young players have been added from the Canterbury ITM Cup side: hooker Ben Funnell, wing Patrick Osbourne, utility back Tom Taylor, and loose forward Luke Whitelock, who captained the New Zealand under 20’s side to victory last season. Whitelock joins his three older brothers at the Crusaders, and is considered by some as the most talented of the Whitelock brothers.
Hard to identify just a few key players, as the Crusaders have star power throughout their team. Up front there three man propping rotation of Wyatt Crockett and the Franks brothers is key to the dominant Crusaders scrum, with all three also outstanding around the field. There are threats throughout the backline, but the key player will as always be Dan Carter, who will be responsible for not only unleashing the attacking potential of the backline, but also directing the team around the field.
Props: Nick Barrett, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Owen Franks
Hookers: Corey Flynn, Ben Funnell, Quentin MacDonald
Locks: Tom Donnelly, Ross Kennedy, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock
Loose forwards: Richie McCaw (c), Matt Todd, Kieran Read, Joe Wheeler, George Whitelock, Luke Whitelock
Halfbacks: Andrew Ellis, Willi Heinz
First-fives eighths: Tyler Bleyendaal, Dan Carter
Centres: Ryan Crotty, Robbie Fruean, Tom Taylor, Adam Whitelock
Wings: Zac Guildford, Sean Maitland, Patrick Osbourne
Fullbacks: Israel Dagg, Tom Marshall
Possible starting XV:
1. Wyatt Crockett, 2. Corey Flynn, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Tom Donnelly, 5. Sam Whitelock, 6. George Whitelock, 7. Richie McCaw (c), 8. Kieran Read, 9. Andrew Ellis, 10. Dan Carter, 11. Zac Guildford, 12. Ryan Crotty, 13. Robbie Fruean, 14. Sean Maitland, 15. Israel Dagg
The bottom line:
The Crusaders have a well balanced team again this season, with world class players throughout the squad. Though they will be missing Dan Carter and Richie McCaw for the first month or so of the season, they have enough talent to stay near the top until these two return. They were very close to winning last season, and look like they will be very difficult to beat this year.
Predicted finish in 2012: 1st
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