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Super Rugby's winners and losers in the cannibalistic...

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Super Rugby's winners and losers in the cannibalistic New Zealand conference

Super Rugby is back. Well, almost.

While all the buzz in the Northern Hemisphere surrounds England’s triumph over Ireland in Dublin, the folks in the south are licking their lips with Super Rugby only a week away.

The New Zealand franchises’ squads were officially announced back in October and some teams faired a little better in the off-season signings than others. Of course, gone are the days where the signings are kept under wraps until the official announcement of the squads. Most of the squads are relatively predictable now due to the fact that the major signings are all announced well in advance to get fans excited about the years to come, but there were still a few surprises here and there. Below we run down how each of New Zealand’s franchises fared in the transfer market for the upcoming 2019 season.

Blues

Two new All Blacks returning to the region is the highlight of the 2019 Blues team. Karl Tu’inukuafe, a rising force in World Rugby and a nominee in 2018 for breakthrough player of the year, will help sure up their scrum, and Ma’a Nonu, heading back to NZ from France, will offer plenty of experience for the Blues’ young backs.

The Blues have a strong starting lineup, but the back-ups they have on hand are still very unproven. This is no more obvious than in the front row, where Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafasi and James Parsons form a formidable starting trio – but behind them, only Sione Mafileo has any real experience at Super Rugby level. Marcel Renata is a promising young prop who has spent time at the Hurricanes – the Blues will be hoping he can blossom into a strong impact player.

Between Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Dalton Papali’i and Jimmy Tupou, the Blues can send out a loose forward trio rivalling the best in the country, but some questions may be raised about their understudies. Glenn Preston, Kara Pryor and Murphy Taramai have all been dropped from last year’s squad – instead the Blues will be relying on new recruits such as Tasman import Jed Brown (no doubt a pick up of new assistant coach Leon MacDonald, who coached Tasman in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup) as well as local boys Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu. Gone too is the influential Jerome Kaino – meaning that the Blues will be vulnerable if injury hits their loose forward stocks.

Bryn Gatland has defected to the Highlanders, which means there’s room for young Auckland five-eighth Harry Plummer. Plummer has shown lots of promise for Auckland, guiding them to the Premiership title in 2018, but, to be quite frank, the Blues don’t need any more ‘promising’ first fives. Both Stephen Perofeta and Otere Black are already in the squad based more on what they could bring to the table rather than on the back of the performances they’ve given in the past, and the Blues could once again find themselves rudderless unless one of these players step up.

The midfield is certainly an area of strength for the Blues with TJ Faiane coming of age for Auckland this year. He will likely be paired in the midfield with either Sonny Bill William or Nonu – simply based on who is injury free at any given point in the season. The Blues have also signed two more giant sized centres in the form of Levi Aumua (selected in the Chiefs last year but was out injured for most of the season) and young Aucklander Tanielu Tele’a.

Biggest victory – Keeping it homegrown. In years gone by the Blues have been criticised for letting some of their top players leave the region. By promoting from within for 2019 (over 90% of their squad hail from Auckland, North Harbour and Northland) that hopefully shouldn’t happen again.

Biggest failure – The second row leaves much to be desired, and who gets the 10 jersey is no clearer now than it was this time last year.

Chiefs

The Chiefs have lost quality players across the park. Karl Tu’inukuafe has transferred to the Blues, Dominic Bird, Liam Messam and Charlie Ngatai have left for France and Toni Pulu has relocated over the ditch to the Brumbies.

Tu’inukuafe is a big loss – but the Chiefs are stacked in the front row, such that they’ve also had to let go Mitchell Graham. Between All Blacks Kane Hames, Nepo Laulala, Angus Ta’avao, Atu Moli and new man Reuben O’Neill (plus Aidan Ross, who was earmarked to slot into the All Blacks last year before a bad injury ended his season), the Chiefs have plenty of firepower in the front row.

Bird, though a great player, has not featured significantly for the Chiefs for the last two years due to injury and has been replaced with young Waikato lock Laghlan McWhannell. He and ex-U20 player Fin Hoeata will be called upon to back up likely starters Brodie Retallick and Canadian Tyler Ardron – though don’t be surprised to see loose forwards Taleni Seu and Mitchell Brown also pop up in the second row as injuries inevitably strike. Messam is a loss, given his form last year, but the Chiefs are well stocked to cover his absence, providing that the Chiefs don’t endure quite as difficult an injury run as last year.

In the backs, the Chiefs have somehow left Waikato pair Fletcher Smith and Jack Stratton out of the squad. Smith, arguably the best performing first five in this year’s Mitre 10 Cup, has been picked up by the Hurricanes whilst Stratton is unsigned by any franchise for 2019. Instead, the Chiefs have signed ex-Rebel Jack Debreczeni and persisted with Jonathan Taumateine. The third halfback is likely to get little game time as it is, with All Blacks pair Brad Weber and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi battling it out for the starting jersey.

Looking at the midfield, signing Tumua Manu is a coup for Colin Cooper, though you have to wonder whether it would have been better to offer local boy Quinn Tuipaea a contract. Tupaea was a standout for Waikato and, although he has a few development points, he would be a great partner for Anton Lienert-Brown. Remarkably, Tupaea has not been signed by any team – though he will likely feature in the Chiefs development squad. We will probably see Lienert-Brown pairing with Bailyn Sullivan to kick the year off.

Biggest victory – Securing the signatures of young backs Tumua Manu and Etene Nanai-Seturo. Both could be absolute superstars.

Biggest failure – Missing out on some quality local talent.

Hurricanes

Although Brad Shields will be a big loss to the men from the capital, the majority of their turnover comes in the form of backup players.

The front row is almost completely unchanged for the Hurricanes. Traditionally it has been a sore spot for the team and, although it is certainly not as flaky as it has been in the past, it is still the weakest of the New Zealand teams. Of course, with Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli and Asafo Aumua there’s still plenty of pace to burn. Journeymen second rowers Murray Douglas and Michael Fatialofa have moved overseas with young players Geoff Cridge and Liam Mitchell coming into replace them. Altogether, the tight five for the Hurricanes looks fairly underwhelming – but that has never stopped them from performing in the past.

Heiden Bedwell-Curtis has moved up the country from the Crusaders to replace Brad Shields and his experience with the Super Rugby champions will be invaluable. Still, the Hurricanes will rely on the superb trio of Gareth Evans, Ardie Savea and Vaea Fifita to provide them front-foot ball but behind the four mentioned players there’s not too much to be excited about. Du’Plessis Kirifi has signed from Wellington after a solid season in the Mitre 10 Cup but he and his fellow loose forwards, Sam Henwood and Reed Prinsep are light on experience at this level.

The first five position will have plenty of depth in 2019, with Beauden Barrett, Fletcher Smith and the returning James Marshall all great players. It would not be a surprise to see either Smith or Marshall turn out elsewhere in the backline throughout the season so that the Hurricanes can utilise the dual playmakers tactic that the All Blacks look to be opting for going forward.

Julian Savea, though struggling to crack the first fifteen at the end of last season, will be a loss for the Hurricanes. In his place comes Auckland wing Salesi Rayasi (though originally from Wellington), who managed nine tries for the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership winners. Rayasi will find it difficult to accrue game time, of course, with Nehe-Milner Skudder, Wes Goosen, Ben Lam, Jordie Barrett and Marshall on the books – but he looms as a player with incredible potential.

Biggest victory – Strengthening the first five stocks by bringing home Fletcher Smith and James Marshall.

Biggest failure – There don’t look to be any new, genuine competitors for the top lineup next year, it’s going to be more of the same (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you).

Crusaders

Although the Crusaders haven’t had the biggest off-season, when you look through the squad you realise that there really aren’t a lot of places that need improvement. Wyatt Crockett and Seta Tamanivalu are the biggest losses – retiring from Super Rugby and heading to France, respectively, but the Crusaders already have so much depth and there are ample players ready to step up in their absence.

With Crockett gone, the Crusaders can still field two All Blacks looseheads in the form of Joe Moody and Tim Perry. The tighhead side of the scrum is equally as strong with Owen Franks and Michael Alaalatoa. Traditionally, the Crusaders have had the strongest tight five of the New Zealand squads and it looks like nothing has changed there with All Blacks Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett and Luke Romano all returning from 2018.

Heiden Bedwell-Curtis and Pete Samu have left the Crusaders for other Super Rugby franchises, but once again the squad has so much depth that neither of these losses will significantly impact the quality lineup the team can field. Ethan Blackadder looks destined for great things and cult figure Whetu Douglas has returned from a short stint in Italy to back up the likes of Tom Sanders, Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd and Kieran Read.

Seasoned pro Mike Delany has been let go for 2019 – evidently the Crusaders coaches are comfortable that Richie Mo’unga and Mitchell Hunt bring enough experience to the squad in order to sign new All Black Brett Cameron. Whether Cameron is now ahead of Hunt in the eyes of coach Scott Robertson is up in the air, given how well Hunt has performed for the Crusaders in the past (remember that drop goal against the Highlanders in 2017?).

Will Jordan is not a new signing for the Crusaders, but injury prevented him from taking the field in 2018. He will be competing for game time in the outside backs with the more experienced George Bridge, Israel Dagg, David Havili and Manasa Mataele as well as new signing Leicester Fainga’anuku – but his future is bright.

Biggest victory – The return of Whetu Douglas is a boon, even if his playtime may be restricted given the depth of the Crusaders’ loose forwards.

Biggest failure – It’s hard to see anything to criticise. It hasn’t been a very exciting offseason for the Crusaders, but that’s what happens when your team is already oozing talent.

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Highlanders

Similar to the Hurricanes, the Highlanders haven’t lost or signed any superstars – with one obvious exception. Lima Sopoaga, who has run the cutter for a number of years, is now in England with Wasps. His vacancy will be plugged by a couple of key signings, but elsewhere it looks like more of the same for the Highlanders.

Waikato props Josh Iosefa-Scott and Ayden Johnstone have earned themselves contracts with the Highlanders for 2019. They’ll be replacing Guy Millar and Aki Seiuli (who is unavailable due to injury) and will battle with stalwarts Daniel-Lienert Brown and Siate Tokolahi for game time, along with fast-rising figure Tyrel Lomax. Though the Highlanders props are unlikely to strike fear in the hearts of many opposition front rows, they’re all able scrummagers who won’t let the team down – no matter which of their props they’re fielding on any given day.

The Highlanders have unquestionable depth at lock and loose forward with fringe All Blacks Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Shannon Frizell, Dillon Hunt, and Luke Whitelock all battling for a place in next year’s World Cup squad. Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon, and James Lentjes will all hope to make it through the season injury free because there is ridiculous competition for places in this Highlanders forward pack.

Much of the talk since the 2018 season concluded has centred around who would fill Sopoaga’s boots in 2019. Bryn Gatland was signed from the Blues and appealed as the likely replacement, but in a surprise move, the Highlanders unveiled that talisman Marty Banks will be returning to the team after a year away. Between Gatland and Banks, the Highlanders should be sorted at first five with Banks likely to have the best chance of unlocking the backline’s potential, which has remained unchanged in the midfield and outside backs.

Biggest victory – Bringing Marty Banks back to help steer the classy backline.

Biggest failure – Like the Hurricanes, the Highlanders haven’t really recruited anyone that will challenge the top team for a starting spot.

In other news:

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Super Rugby's winners and losers in the cannibalistic New Zealand conference | RugbyPass