In a testament to the depth of their playing pool, the country had four of their five Super Rugby teams finish with winning records in 2012. Chief (pun intended) among those was the Chiefs, who finished with the second best record in the competition and were the eventual champions. The five teams in New Zealand will be looking to improve this season, especially when it comes to putting more teams in the playoffs.
Chiefs (Champions, second overall, first in New Zealand conference)-
While the Chiefs have made some changes in the offseason, there is no reason why they cannot repeat their championship season. The most notable of the outgoing names is Sonny Bill Williams. Kane Thompson and Sona Taumalolo have also moved on. A couple of the players coming into the squad are youngsters Rhys Marshall and Gareth Anscombe. Still, it’s not as if the Chiefs needed to add big names to their team. With Liam Messam, Aaron Cruden, and the like on the team they have plenty of talent already. The Chiefs open with the Highlanders before playing the Cheetahs and then a mouth-watering match with the Stormers. If the Chiefs can go 3-0 in this stretch they will set themselves for another dream season.
Crusaders (semi-finals, fourth overall, second in New Zealand conference)-
It’s hard to call an 11 win, 5 loss season with a trip to the semi-finals a disappointing season, but with all the talent available to the Crusaders last season anything less than a championship would not have resonated well with players, coaches, and fans. Led by Richie McCaw, Dan Carter (who were both in the running for player of the year), Israel Dagg, Sam Whitelock, Own Franks, and captain Kieran Read, the Crusaders are right up there in conversations for season favorites. However, there is a bit of distraction around the squad regarding the Zac Guildford situation. The team has also lost Sean Maitland and Ben Franks. The key for the Crusaders this season will be performing consistently all season. If they can go on a stretch of significant wins, that could give them a mental edge over all other teams. The Crusaders have the week off before facing the Blues and then the Hurricanes.
Hurricanes (no playoffs, eighth overall, third in New Zealand conference)-
Last season the Hurricanes had (and continue to still have) a talented lineup but failed to miss the playoffs. In another conference they might have won enough matches to make the playoffs, but instead they found themselves on the outside looking in. In order to get over the playoff hurdle the team has brought in Ben Franks to bolster their weakspot--front row. The backs are where they are the strongest with Julian Savea and Core Jane (although he’s injured) out on the wings. At center they have Conrad Smith. They are also strong in the back row with Victor Vito. The biggest question for the Hurricanes this season is whether or not they have the depth to last the whole season. An injury or two, like the one to Jane, could put the team in a big hole. However, if everyone stays healthy and they are able to use their backs to their full extent, it could be a good season in Wellington.
Highlanders (no playoffs, ninth overall, four in New Zealand conference)-
The Highlanders were highly disappointed to miss out on the playoffs last year and have re-loaded this offseason in an attempt to break through. Ma’a Nonu, Declan O’Donnell, Brad Thorn, and Tony Woodcock all join the club. Together with holdovers like Andrew Hore and Hosea Gear the team has plenty of bite. Things have been consistently improving in Dunedin and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team make the playoffs. They have plenty of talent at scrum-half but their current fly-half situation is very much up in the air with only young Hayden Parker healthy and training to start the season. Forward play will be key for the Highlanders but with Nonu’s addition they will also be better in the back, spelling trouble for their opponents. They take on the Chiefs in their first match.
Blues (no playoffs, 12th overall, fifth in New Zealand conference)-
The Blues had a woefully poor season in 2012 despite a strong roster that included Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, and Jerome Kaino. All three of those players have now left the club while the club has failed to bring in any big name replacements. The poor season also cost Pat Lam his job. He has been replaced by John Kirwan. Fortunately for the Blues they already have a talented lineup with the likes of Keven Mealamu, Ali Williams, Piri Weepu, Rene Ranger, and Charlie Piutau. Like most teams health will be a big issue. Kirwan should get the team up to standard but another disappointing season could see even more wholesale changes.
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