It is now just a matter of days before live rugby returns, with Super Rugby Aotearoa, a tournament involving the five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, set to be rugby union’s first foray back into competitive action since the coronavirus outbreak.

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has ended lockdown in the country, declaring New Zealand coronavirus-free, and that means the games will be able to be attended by fans, something which should only increase the excitement around those upcoming fixtures.

The Highlanders will host the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium on June 13th, before the Blues take on the Hurricanes in Auckland a day later, with the Crusaders enjoying a bye week for the opening round of fixtures. Saturday and Sunday should prove to be a sizeable step back to normality for rugby fans all over the globe who have been starved of action over the last few months.

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Column inches will at last be able to be filled once again with reactions to games, player performances and a general rejoicing in the return of the sport, though as the countdown ticks ever closer to kick-off in Dunedin, we still have a day or two left to fill the rugby void.

Every eye in the rugby world will be fixed on New Zealand for the foreseeable future and it will be a fitting showcase for the talent on offer at the country’s five Super Rugby franchises. New Zealand has accounted for seven of the last eight winners of Super Rugby, with all of their franchises, bar the Blues, responsible for at least one of those titles.

That said, no side is perfect, despite the Crusaders coming close to testing that theory, and we have come up with an elaborate five-man trade between the franchises that could see each of them rise to even greater heights.

We start with those near-perfect Crusaders, with the side from Canterbury the reigning Super Rugby champions, having completed a memorable three-peat back in 2019. There were very few people not backing them for a fourth title this year, either, before the global pandemic ended the cross-border competition.

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There aren’t too many ways you could improve the Crusaders, thanks to the excellent job they do developing homegrown talent, as well as scouting out diamonds in the rough from other areas of New Zealand and honing them into top-end players. The franchise has been able to pick up second, third or even fourth choice schoolboy players from the Auckland region and develop them into All Blacks, and it is a significant endorsement of the culture and coaching in place under Scott Robertson.

As such, in this hypothetical five-team trade, the Crusaders receive exclusive signing rights to a player of their choice in the Blues’ region. It might be a budding prospect at lock to eventually replace the ageing Sam Whitelock or it could perhaps be a marauding No 8, someone who can fill the long-term void left by Kieran Read’s departure. Think of it as a first round draft pick, if you’re au fait with American sports.

If the Crusaders are able to reach the heights they have by developing less heralded prospects from other regions, the prospect of them picking up a top-end talent is a salivating one.

In order for the Crusaders to get those signing rights from the Blues, they ship on lock Quinten Strange to the Highlanders.

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Strange, 23, has performed well and consistently in the shadows of Whitelock, Scott Barrett and Luke Romano, and a move to Dunedin could free him up to flourish away from those big-name second rows. It’s a loss the Crusaders wouldn’t want to have to deal with, although Mitchell Dunshea has also shown himself to an effective option, whilst promising U20 Zach Gallagher is one to keep an eye on as Barrett’s potential long-term partner in the engine room.

For the Highlanders, Strange could be a starter week in, week out, bolstering an area of their first XV that has lacked a difference-maker for a while now. A partnership with Pari Pari Parkinson might not grab headlines but the pair would complement each other well, they have their best years ahead of them and they could avoid the bulk of international duty with the All Blacks, freeing them up to make the maximum positive impact for the Highlanders.

The Highlanders’ squad is not as talent rich as it once was and there are few positions they can afford to give up a valuable contributor at. That said, the franchise does have a healthy array of young wing options, including Jona Nareki, Ngane Punivai and Vilimoni Koroi, the latter of whom has joined up for Aotearoa, although it could signal a long-term move from 7s to XVs.

As such, it lets them send the freakishly talented Tevita Nabura to the Hurricanes. Nabura has been unlucky with injuries since making the move to the Highlanders and though they would not want to see him go, the practicality of shoring up the second row and trusting in some of the younger outside back options is the right move for them as they attempt to climb back to the summit of Super Rugby.

The Hurricanes do not lack for talent in Wellington and they are still among the most dangerous sides in global club rugby. They have, however, had their fair share of losses over the last 12 months or so.

Beauden Barrett departed for the Blues, something which could yet mean the ‘Canes have to rely on Jordie Barrett more often at fly-half and not in the back three, whilst Ben Lam is set to move to Bordeaux this year after his fantastic breakout campaign in 2019. Furthermore, there is an argument that the Wellington-based side are at their best when Vince Aso is deployed in the midfield alongside Ngani Laumape, something which could leave them short with their wing options.

If Nabura can stay fit, he would be the lit match that sets off the powder keg that is the Hurricanes’ squad, though they have sufficient enough options that they can take a high-risk, high-reward punt on the wing. The Fijian would be a destructive force outside of the tempo and sniping of TJ Perenara and the powerful centre pairing of Laumape and Aso.

In order to bring in Nabura, the Hurricanes would have to give up All Black Vaea Fifita to the Chiefs. It would deplete their options in the back row, though the exciting Devan Flanders could see his opportunities increase as a result, as he attempts to nail down a starting spot alongside Ardie Savea, Gareth Evans and Du’Plessis Kirifi.

Fifita could add plenty to the Chiefs’ back row in conjunction with Sam Cane and Luke Jacobson, although it is perhaps at lock where he could have the most impact. With Brodie Retallick set to return from Japan shortly, Fifita could provide an injection of dynamism in tandem with arguably the most complete second row in the global game. With plenty of talent in the front and back rows, adding Fifita as a contrasting and complementary player to Retallick at lock could help make the Chiefs the most dominant pack in New Zealand rugby.

Nothing in life comes for free, though, and we complete our merry-go-round of franchise trades with Brad Weber heading from the Chiefs to join up with the Blues. No one wants to lose an All Black, particularly at a position as influential as scrum-half, but the Chiefs are as able to swallow that loss as well as anyone with Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi on their books.

The Blues, meanwhile, get a proven operator at scrum-half to work in tandem with Barrett, as the sleeping giant that is the northernmost franchise in the country attempts to rouse itself. Sam Nock is a promising player, but Weber gives the Blues someone who can be plugged in immediately and help take the franchise back to the top. If the Blues’ pack can give Weber and Barrett a platform, they will have no trouble unleashing the side’s raw but talented back line.

Blues to Crusaders – Exclusive schoolboy signing rights

Crusaders to Highlanders – Quinten Strange

Highlanders to Hurricanes – Tevita Nabura

Hurricanes to Chiefs – Vaea Fifita

Chiefs to Blues – Brad Weber

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