Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions tour looms over New Zealand’s Super Rugby sides
The question remains how much the visit of the combined side will impact the dominance shown by the likes of the Hurricanes and the Highlanders
The British & Irish Lions tour lies in the background for New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams this season though the big question is whether it will affect the dominance they demonstrated in 2016.
Warren Gatland’s combined side are making their first visit to the country in 12 years for a three-test series against the All Blacks as well as games against each of the Super Rugby teams from June 3.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said last week the Auckland Blues and Canterbury Crusaders would be able to call on their internationals for their matches before the national squad assembles on June 11.
New Zealand’s Super Rugby coaches therefore have the delicate balancing act of trying to get the best out of their All Blacks, who may have one eye on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to face the Lions in a test series.
The Hurricanes may have set the template on how to do that last year when coach Chris Boyd managed to get obscure provincial or fringe squad players to lift their performances and compliment a side sprinkled with game-breaking All Blacks.
The Hurricanes, like the other New Zealand sides, are remarkably stable with little turnover from last season when four of the five teams made the play-offs, with three advancing to the semi-finals.
Both the Otago Highlanders and Waikato Chiefs, beaten semi-finalists last year, however are losing their coaches at the end of the season.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown has only taken the job on for this season before he joins Jamie Joseph with the Japan national side.
The Chiefs’ Dave Rennie, who won the title in his first two years, is leaving for Glasgow at the end of the season.
The Hamilton-based side also have to win back support after two ugly off-field incidents last year left a black mark on the team’s image and New Zealanders questioning a macho culture many felt had disappeared last century.
Watch: Hurricanes win the 2016 Super Rugby title
After eight years under Todd Blackadder, the Canterbury Crusaders are facing a shake-up with former All Blacks loose forward Scott Robertson taking the job in Christchurch.
Robertson, who led the Canterbury provincial side to the national title in three of the last four years, has arguably the best pack in the competition but questions around the line-breaking ability of the backs remain.
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Former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga enters his second year in charge of the Blues, who finished last in the New Zealand conference last season, but still managed to win eight games.
Their big issue will be matches against fellow New Zealand sides, having won just one of their six games against their compatriots last year, and being able to pull out ugly wins.