Super Rugby fact file: New Zealand conference
Penpix of the New Zealand teams playing in this season’s Super Rugby series, which starts on Friday:
BLUES (formerly Auckland Blues)
Coach: Tana Umaga
Captain: Jerome Kaino
Stadium: Eden Park, Auckland
Best finish: Champions (1996, 1997, 2003)
After their worst season when they won just three games, the Blues have hopes for a big turnaround under new coach Tana Umaga who has had considerable success at provincial level. They have recruited well in the off-season although they remain without an experienced 9-10 combination. Among the outside backs, former All Black Rene Ranger returns from France after cutting short his contract with Top 14 club Montpellier and attention will be on former New Zealand rugby league representative Matt Duffie, who has left Melbourne Storm to switch codes and return home. Tanerau Latimer arrives from the Chiefs to give the pack a quality fetcher.
CHIEFS (formerly Waikato Chiefs)
Coach: Dave Rennie
Co-captains: Aaron Cruden, Sam Cane
Stadium: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Best finish: Champions (2012, 2013)
The Chiefs have been bolstered by the return of fly-half Aaron Cruden but their hopes of picking up a third title have already been hit by the loss of two All Blacks – prop Nepo Laulala is out with a season-ending injury and lock Dominic Bird will miss at least six weeks. They will also miss Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam as they focus on sevens and the Olympics. It is co-captain Sam Cane’s year to prove himself as New Zealand’s foremost number seven following the retirement of Ritchie McCaw. Brodie Retallick is there as the figurehead in the tight but they have lost big prop Ben Tameifuna. Stephen Donald, the 2011 World Cup match-winner, adds experience to the backs, while the forwards have Michael Leitch whose daring penalty call led to Japan’s last-gasp win over South Africa at the 2015 RWC.
CRUSADERS (formerly Canterbury Crusaders)
Coach: Todd Blackadder
Captain: Kieran Read
Stadium: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Best finish: Champions (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008)
Blackadder’s last season in charge and last chance to add to the Crusaders trophy cabinet which has been barren for seven years. They have lost two of the game’s all-time greats in Richie McCaw and Dan Carter and their once-brimming stock of talented fly-halves is depleted with fellow All Blacks Colin Slade and Tom Taylor joining Carter in France, although their leader and number eight Kieran Read was named last week as successor to McCaw as All Blacks captain. The rawness of the backs showed when beaten 74-7 by the Hurricanes in a pre-season game as the Crusaders experimented with combinations. They will need Israel Dagg to regain his form after a 2015 slump that saw him discarded from the All Blacks. The pack remains laden with All Blacks who do not have the distraction of a World Cup as they did last year when the Crusaders failed to make the semi-finals for the first time since 2001.
HIGHLANDERS (formerly Otago Highlanders)
Coach: Jamie Joseph
Co-captains: Ben Smith, Shane Christie
Stadium: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Best finish: Champions (2015)
Jamie Joseph, who moulded a forward pack of no-names into champions, is in his last season before heading to Japan to take over the Brave Blossoms. The Highlanders are unlikely to fly under the radar as they did last year. Backline All Blacks Ben and Aaron Smith, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa and Lima Sopoaga remain the cornerstones of the side who were joint top try-scorers with the Hurricanes last year. The recruitment of Liam Squire and Luke Whitelock to join Elliott Dixon will add to their forwards and ensure the Cinderella side remain in contention.
HURRICANES (formerly Wellington Hurricanes)
Coach: Chris Boyd
Captain: Dane Coles
Stadium: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Best finish: Runners-up (2006, 2015)
Last year’s beaten finalists remain blessed on the wings with Julian Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Cory Jane, and have All Blacks pair TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett in the halves. How they fill the gap in between will shape their season after veteran midfielders Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith moved away after the World Cup. League convert Ngani Laumape comes in from the Auckland Warriors and will battle with Pita Ahki and Vince Aso for the centre roles. The Hurricanes remain strong in the loose with Ardie Savea, Victor Vito and Brad Shields but may have problems replacing the experience of tight forwards Ben Franks and Jeremy Thrush.