With the Aussies kicking off Super Rugby this weekend, we can’t forget our friends across the ditch who kick off next week.
The New Zealand conference looks to be one of the most open this year and with some big changes on and off the field it will certainly make for some great viewing in 2013. One of the biggest issues is the turnover of players from the franchises that is sometimes difficult to keep up with.
The men from Auckland had a hugely disappointing 2012 but have sought to fix that with a massive overhaul in the coaching department. John Kirwan has taken over from Pat Lam and his brought in his own crew of assistants including ‘Aussie’ Mick Byrne, who really should be coaching in Australia, and has even snared Sir Graham Henry as a technical advisor.
The ‘ins and outs’ column would fill a page by themselves with the poor results of 2012 playing a huge part in the high ‘outs’ column. Players like Nonu, Woodcock, Toeava and Daniel Braid will be tough to replace and it’s not made easier with Keven Mealamu having an extended rest, but those who remain could cause damage if everything falls into place.
It will take a lot from Kirwan to work miracles in his first season in charge to get them back to the glory days of the 1990s. It will be a work in progress.
Players to watch: Charles Piutau, Rene Ranger, Piri Weepu.
Conference Prediction: 5th
The reigning Super Rugby champions will be looking to defend their title without offload master Sonny Bill Williams and try scoring prop Sona Taumalolo, but the depth the Chiefs possess might offset those losses. Other than those gaps Dave Rennie shouldn’t have too many headaches with the majority of the starting XV picking itself — although that depth might have a few players looking over their shoulders.
The forward pack has the ability to be New Zealand’s best with Ben Afeaki at 127kg and Ben Tameifuna at 137kg battling for the starting tighthead prop duties. Combine that with All Blacks-rated players in the flankers and the Chiefs will have a formidable lineup.
With the key areas of second row and the halves retained the Chiefs should go a long way to being the New Zealand conference’s winning side in 2013.
Players to watch: Liam Messam, Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden.
Conference Prediction: 1st
The Cantabrians will be hungry to get back on the winners list after not tasting Super success for four years. That task won’t be easy with Rutchie McCaw taking off in his glider for a six-month rest and Zac Guildford away indefinitely.
All is not lost though for coach Todd Blackadder, with the experienced Kieran Read and Dan Carter to lead the team around in 2013. Canterbury will be grateful to Mrs Whitelock who has four of her sons in the squad, with Sam and George expected to play many minutes in 2013.
The backline has the talent to score from anywhere on the park and with All Blacks Carter and Andy Ellis in the halves, opposition teams will need to be wary of their attacking threat. With weapons like Robbie Fruean and Israel Dagg at their disposal, the Crusaders can launch counter-attacks like no other team.
Players to watch: Israel Dagg, Dan Carter, Kieran Read.
Conference Prediction: 2nd
The clan from the south have been very active in recruiting during the off season and have landed three big names on the field in Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn, who returns from Japan. Off the field, Jamie Joseph has brought in Jon Preston and Scott McLeod as his assistants.
If Colin Slade can avoid the injury curse and stay out of the surgeon’s chair he should have a big 2013. With the talent playing outside him including Hosea Gear and Ben Smith, big things are expected from the Highlanders’ backline.
Up front, expect All Blacks Tony Woodcock and Andrew Hore to lead the way. Add in Thorn and the Clan will be very physical at the breakdown.
Players to watch: Ma’a Nonu, Brad Thorn, Hosea Gear.
Conference Prediction: 3rd
Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett has been dealt a huge blow before a ball is kicked in 2013 with Cory Jane rupturing his ACL in a recent trial that has put a dent in their chances for 2013.
Despite that, 24 of last year’s squad are continuing on in 2013 so there is stability within the ranks. Former Crusaders prop Ben Franks has crossed the Cook Strait to the capital to add some experience to a scrum that includes the likes of Faifili Levave and newcomer Ardie Savea. Many fans won’t forget about Motu Matu’u and his impact off the bench — just ask Mark Gerrard and Lachlan Mitchell after the Rebels played them last year.
The back three of the Hurricanes might lose some impact with Jane missing but with Andre Taylor and Julian Savea still there you can expect some lightning speed and many tries. Captain Conrad Smith will be reliable as usual and his defence will be key to keeping his team up the ladder.
Players to watch: Conrad Smith, Julan Savea, Victor Vito.
Conference Prediction: 4th
How do you think the New Zealand conference will end up?