The arrival of the Super Signing Day for New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises brings with it a sense of excitement and anticipation around the country for the upcoming season, and that was no different yesterday.
The expected departures of a number of older stars were confirmed, as was the arrival of the next generation of players, while there were a few interesting positional movements and player acquisitions that had previously been unheralded.
With just two-and-a-half months separating us from the kick-off of the 2020 campaign, we have gone through the new-look squads for the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders, and have formulated key questions which need to be answered by each side if they’re to ensure their next season is a fruitful one.
Continue reading below…
1) Is Rieko Ioane’s shift to the midfield a gamble worth taking?
Four years into his professional career where he has made a name for himself as one of the world’s most dominant left wings, Rieko Ioane has made a positional switch into the Blues’ midfield for the 2020 Super Rugby campaign.
His request to move from No. 11 to No. 13 has been granted by head coach Leon MacDonald, and that decision to move further into the backline may stem from an underwhelming 2019 season, where Ioane lost his status as New Zealand’s premier wing.
Both he and fellow previous incumbent Ben Smith lost their places in the national side to Crusaders duo George Bridge and Sevu Reece, leaving Ioane to feature in just five tests this year.
Failing to re-establish his barnstorming credentials in any of the five appearances he made in the black jersey, the 22-year-old has seemingly entrenched himself much further down the national pecking order than he would have anticipated leading into 2019.
Subsequently, the two-time world player of the year nominee’s decision to move from the wing to the midfield may be a case of trying to re-prove his worth as a powerful utility option to the incoming All Blacks coach, whoever that may be.
It’s a bold call from Ioane, who plied his trade there at schoolboy level and in his early Mitre 10 Cup days with Auckland, but is it the right one?
In 2018, then-Blues head coach Tana Umaga stuck the young star into the midfield for 10 of his side’s 15 matches that year, and while it may have seemed like a good idea given Ioane’s impressive physical attributes, it would be fair to say the experiment didn’t reap the desired results.
Playing in the middle of the backline rather than at the end of it – especially at second-five, where Ioane was frequently selected – severely limited the time and space he had on the ball, thus reducing the thunderous impact he often inflicts on opposition defences.
His own defensive reads, a key component in the makeup of a talented midfielder, have also come under scrutiny during his time at the Auckland franchise.
That’s not to say that Ioane won’t be troublesome for rival Super Rugby clubs from the midfield – anyone who watched Auckland in the 2016 Mitre 10 Cup will know that.
But, with stronger defence systems in Super Rugby, and stern internal competition for a place in the Blues’ midfield from TJ Faiane, Tanielu Tele’a and England international Joe Marchant, there remains the possibility that Ioane might find himself under more pressure as a midfielder than if he tried to rekindle his mojo from the wing.
2) How significantly will Brodie Retallick’s absence from the Chiefs be felt?
There’s no denying the Chiefs have recruited strongly ahead of next season’s Super Rugby.
Bringing both head coach Warren Gatland and first-five Aaron Cruden back to the franchise could prove to be masterstroke moves by the Hamiltonians.
Furthermore, the additions of young stars such as Quinn Tupaea, Kini Naholo and Kaleb Trask could pay dividends in future seasons, while the return of Damian McKenzie from injury gives the Chiefs an exciting backline to tinker with.
But what about their forward pack?
Sure, they’ve retained the majority of their loose forwards, most of whom have shown they can thrive at this level, while their front row stocks remain firmly bolstered through the likes of Nepo Laulala and Nathan Harris.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 13, 2019
The real concern, though, comes at lock.
Gone is former world player of the year Brodie Retallick, who has relocated to Japan on a two-season sabbatical and won’t be back at the Chiefs until 2022.
That is a scary prospect for Gatland’s men, who will now be forced to rely upon the services of Canadian poster boy Tyler Ardron, the experienced Michael Allardice, and rookies Laughlan McWhannell and Naitoa Ah Kuoi.
Ardron is the most prominent name from that contingent, and a lot of the Chiefs’ work in the engine room will be cast upon him, but despite Allardice’s five years of experience with the club, he isn’t in the same stratosphere as Retallick.
The other two are still yet to be tested at this level, so it begs the question of can we expect enough from those two debutants and Allardice to fill the gigantic void left by Retallick?
The two-time Super Rugby champions nevertheless have a very talented squad led by one of the planet’s best coaches, and they should be aiming for no less than a play-off berth, but how deep into the knockout stages can they go without their industrious co-captain?
3) Why have the Hurricanes called upon a South African in a position that New Zealand possesses a wealth of talent in?
One of the biggest surprises that came from yesterday’s Super Signing Day was the unveiling of Kobus van Wyk as one of the Hurricanes’ eight new recruits.
The South African was a member of the Sharks squad last year, and had been with the franchise since 2017 after joining from the Stormers.
Although he picked up a combined total of 50 Super Rugby caps during his time with both clubs, the internationally uncapped Van Wyk has been a fairly anonymous figure among New Zealand’s rugby faithful.
The Hurricanes’ acquisition of the 27-year-old came through head coach John Plumtree’s connections with the Sharks after having both played for and coached the club.
He, along with assistant coach Jason Holland, were reportedly impressed with Van Wyk’s ability, Hurricanes chief executive Avan Lee told Stuff.
“John has obviously spent a lot of time in South Africa, so he knows a lot of people over there. Kobus’ name came up and then John and Jason Holland had a look at him play and he was really keen to come out,” Lee said.
“We’re really excited by that. Super Rugby is an international competition, but having foreign players in New Zealand doesn’t happen that often. He’s been picked on ability first, but I think it’s cool for fans to have a bit of international flavour.”
While it is intriguing to see players make a rare cross-border switch within Super Rugby, it should be questioned why the Hurricanes felt the need to bring in an outside back from overseas to cover a position of which New Zealand already has plenty of credible candidates.
Some of those candidates didn’t even secure Super Rugby contracts, with players like Tima Faingaanuku, who was in scintillating form for Tasman following his return from the Top 14 in France, and Bay of Plenty’s sevens sensation Joe Ravouvou among those who missed out to the South African import.
Perhaps neither Faingaanuku nor Ravouvou fitted Plumtree’s game plan for the coming season, but both played well enough in their respective domestic campaigns to warrant professional contracts somewhere within their homeland.
It’s a shame neither have been recognised for their efforts while the likes of Van Wyk have been brought in from offshore clubs to add to New Zealand Rugby’s payroll.
In saying that, it will be interesting to track his progress and see how the Hurricanes utilise him, but hopefully homegrown players worthy of a full-time spot in Kiwi Super Rugby squads missing out to little-known foreigners doesn’t become a trend or hinder the career development of players in New Zealand.
4) How will the Crusaders cope following their exodus of established All Blacks?
As the reigning three-peat champions, it’s expected that the Crusaders will head into 2020 as the favourites to take out a fourth consecutive Super Rugby crown.
That’s on the basis that, over the past three seasons, they’ve had a squad that has been both lathered with quality, depth and experience, and has been coached by one of the most successful bosses in the competition’s history in Scott Robertson.
It’s a different story next year, though, especially if Robertson is announced as the successor to Steve Hansen as All Blacks head coach.
Scott Robertson has spoken of his disappointment at hearing Tony Brown had decided to support Jamie Joseph in his push to be the next All Blacks coach.https://t.co/EDgWrc3YTx
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 13, 2019
What’s already been confirmed is the loss of a whopping 497 test caps worth of experience, which is sure to be felt throughout the side.
Kieran Read, Owen Franks, Ryan Crotty and Matt Todd have all ended their affiliations with New Zealand Rugby by signing offshore contracts, captain Sam Whitelock is on sabbatical in Japan, Israel Dagg has retired, and Tim Perry has been deemed surplus to requirements.
Add to that the exit of uncapped All Blacks loose forward Jordan Taufua to the Leicester Tigers, and the depletion of squad depth through the departures of back-up hooker Ben Funnell, retired midfielder Tim Bateman, and new Highlanders pair Mitch Hunt and Ngane Punivai, and this looks to be a much more containable Crusaders outfit than what we’ve seen in recent years.
Of course, considering the rugby factory that is Canterbury and the Crusaders, there are bound to be replacements hanging in the wings waiting to put their hands up for a full-time place in the starting lineup.
That could result in players such as Billy Harmon and Ethan Blackadder coming of age next year, while others like Will Jordan and Sevu Reece will look to build on their breakout 2019 campaigns.
Regardless, the Crusaders have felt a big turnover of seasoned talents over the off-season, and if Robertson is handed the job of leading the All Blacks early next month, then the Cantabrians face a big challenge of chasing a fourth straight title.
5) Can the Highlanders get the best out of their youngsters to offset the departures of their long-serving veterans?
The Crusaders may have suffered some casualties in terms of player retention since they last lifted the Super Rugby trophy in July, but at least they still have a large core of players returning who have been part of their title-winning success.
The same cannot be said for the Highlanders.
Only five players – Aaron Smith, Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown and James Lentjes – remain from the side that claimed the club’s sole Super Rugby crown in Wellington four years ago, with many key individuals from that squad recently opting to prolong their careers overseas.
Club legend Ben Smith’s absence will be felt the hardest, while Waisake Naholo, who became the Highlanders’ leading all-time tryscorer this year, showed his lethal finishing ability in his London Irish debut over the weekend.
Fellow All Blacks Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock, Jackson Hemopo, Elliot Dixon and Tyrel Lomax are also gone, as are franchise stalwarts Tom Franklin, Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Marty Banks, Aki Seiuli and Tevita Li.
It’s left some gaping holes in Aaron Mauger’s squad, but he’s filled them with some exciting, fresh talent which could deliver a title of their own in the coming years.
The overhaul within the outside backs is particularly prominent, with youngsters Jona Nareki, Scott Gregory, Ngane Punivai and Connor Garden-Bachop joining the slightly older Michael Collins and Chris Kuridrani as the new kids on the block.
There’s also change aplenty in the loose forwards, with Sione Misiloi, former Chiefs bruiser Jesse Parete, Tongan hitman Zane Kapeli and highly-touted Wellington No. 8 Teariki Ben-Nicholas all moving south to under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Elsewhere, Mitch Hunt has been signed from the Crusaders to replace fan favourite Banks, while ex-Chiefs prop Jeff Thwaites, Southland lock Manaaki Selby-Rickit and front-rowers Ethan de Groot and Ricky Jackson make up the new faces in the tight five.
Most of those new signings are on the better side of 25, which indicates a prosperous future for a club which has entered a rebuilding phase, but how long will it take for them to gel together and start to emulate the successes of their predecessors?
Under the guidance of the likes of Smith, Naholo and Squire, the Highlanders have made the play-offs every year since 2014, but were fortunate to have even made the last eight this year after finishing with just six wins from 16 matches.
That task of featuring in the knockout stages has been made even more difficult without a host of their star men, so if the class of 2020 are to make it a seventh straight trip to the quarter-finals, then those new recruits are going to have to step up to the plate and hit the ground running from day dot.
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