After four years of successive titles, it’s unsurprising to again see the Crusaders rank as firm favourites to claim the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa title on the eve of the competition’s kick-off.

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Under the guidance of head coach Scott Robertson, the Christchurch franchise are in the midst of a golden era as they eye a fifth consecutive crown to add to their exhaustive honours list.

The prospect of a sixth title on the bounce is also on the radar should they do the double in both Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, but the reigning Kiwi champions won’t be getting ahead of themselves.

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With the season not yet underway, the Crusaders still have to embark on eight straight New Zealand derbies before they can lock away any silverware, and each of those matches will be tough encounters, as is always the case with Kiwi clashes.

So, while the Crusaders’ championship record in recent years is unblemished, the Super Rugby Aotearoa title is by no means a foregone conclusion at this early stage of the year.

Robertson’s squad will understand the competition is certainly not a one-horse race, with each of the other four franchises posing their own respective threats to the Crusaders’ dynasty.

There are two teams in particular that stand front and centre in the collective bid to knock the Crusaders off their perch, according to recently-retired Blues hooker James Parsons and Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall.

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Speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Parsons, who quit from all forms of rugby last month, said his former side, who he played 115 times for between 2012 and 2020, are legitimate contenders to claim their first Super Rugby title since 2003.

After over a decade-and-a-half of underperformance, the three-time champions enjoyed a resurgent campaign last year, sitting in fourth spot at the time of Super Rugby’s suspension in March before finishing runners-up in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Their rejuvenation coincided with the high-profile acquisition of All Blacks star Beauden Barrett, but the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year is unavailable this year due to his sabbatical in Japan.

However, Parsons suggested the Blues have enough depth across the board to cope without Barrett – and recently-retired All Blacks great Dan Carter – this year, putting them in good stead to go one place better than their 2020 campaign.

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“I genuinely do think the Blues because it’s another year of experience under some guidance of someone like Beaudy and Dan in that environment, and now a lot of ownership and reins and control is given to these guys to step up and fill that void,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod of who he sees as the biggest threat to the Crusaders.

The two-test hooker added he was impressed by what he had seen from the Auckland franchise in their pre-season outings, noting that their performances reflected the goals they have set for themselves for the season ahead.

“I felt, from what I saw on the weekend, and I haven’t been in with the squad at all, you could see that there’s a genuine expectation on themselves to step up and continue that ball rolling,” he said.

“From what you saw from the big guys that haven’t had a lot of pre-season, like Rieko [Ioane], I just thought he was exceptional.

“His line speed, defensively, his willingness to set up his teammates, his work rate off the ball – when you’ve got a leader like that delivering in a pre-season game with no points on the board, others are going to follow.

“I think that’s the most exciting thing for me, and you’ve got a guy like Otere [Black] who’s got that balance of attack, you’ve got competition at No. 9 between Finlay Christie, Sam Nock and Jonathan Ruru, who was exceptional on the weekend, in key positions.

“You’ve got a forward pack that is coached by Tom Coventry that are continuing to just want to roll their sleeves up. You’ve got a front three that are fighting for positions. I thought both Luteru Tolai and Kurt Eklund were exceptional on the weekend.

“You’ve got Nepo [Laulala] and Ofa [Tuungafasi] fighting out for tighthead. You’ve got two All Blacks [Karl Tu’inukuafe and Alex Hodgman] fighting it out for loosehead.

“You’ve got a skipper in Patty [Patrick Tuipulotu], you’ve got Tom Robinson, you’ve got Dalton Papalii, you’ve got Blake Gibson, you’ve got Hoskins [Sotutu], you’ve got Akira [Ioane]. You’ve got selection dilemmas. That’s depth and selection dilemmas.”

Parsons said that breadth of depth will serve the Blues well throughout the season when injuries inevitably strike, and it will also provide competition for places in the match day squad for those who are fit and ready to play.

“What the Crusaders have done so well in the past is when they’ve had an injury, there’s been another guy to step up, or when they’ve had their fit, full squad, competition is created and it’s created an edge at training, and that edge is continued on to the game.

“They’ve almost had a harder training on Thursday than the game they’ve faced on the weekend, and that’s the edge that I feel that is creating in that Blues environment at the moment.

“I don’t want to put pressure on them, because I know that they’re already creating that pressure themselves, but I genuinely think they’re building a hard work ethic, and tough, tough underbelly and a willingness to go above and beyond for their teammate.”

Hall, meanwhile, agreed with Parsons’ assertion that the Blues loom as key challengers to deny his side yet another title, but the 29-year-old was similarly impressed with the recruitment efforts made by the Highlanders over the off-season.

The Dunedin franchise endured a below-par campaign last year, picking up just one win from five matches prior to Super Rugby’s cancellation and finishing in fourth place in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

That forced the side to part ways with head coach Aaron Mauger, who has since been replaced by Tony Brown, an assistant to Mauger in 2020 and back for his second stint in the top job at the club.

Since his appointment, the former Highlanders first-five has recruited strongly, bringing in a raft of top names into the squad as they look to restore their status as one of the New Zealand’s top sides.

Hall said locking in Brown as head coach was a vital piece of business for the Highlanders, not only because of the the star power he has brought with him, but also because of the tactics he is expected to implement.

“The Highlanders have done really well in their recruiting with Tony Brown, and I think, with Tony Brown being involved again, kicking on the full is going to be great for them, bringing back their real Highlanders mindset,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“Even though he was in the environment last year, I think him being able to be the head coach will be massive for them.

“The players that they’ve signed, with the likes of, in their backline, Fetuli Paea – who was really good for us here – he’s going to have more growth and he’s going to have more opportunities. I see him very similar to Malakai Fekitoa, actually.

“Then Solomon Alaimalo, who is a great signing for their back three. They had a lot of young guys there last year, and probably lacked that experience and Solly has had a lot of time at the Chiefs and, not too long ago, he was knocking on the door of the All Blacks.

“He’ll get another chance to have a great opportunity in an environment where he’ll be playing a lot of footy.

“I think they’ve just signed some really good, key, experienced players like Josh Hohneck, who’s come back, and Bryn Evans, who will really add that experience in that group.

“Let’s talk about Liam Squire, who, we know in New Zealand rugby, is more of a talisman for them who sets the tone physically and just brings more depth into that loose forward trio, who are going to be fantastic with his addition.

“You’ve got Dillon Hunt who left, but then you’ve got Billy Harmon. Billy Harmon’s gone down there as well, who’s again seeking an opportunity and he’s gone down to a fresher role.

“He was with us the last three years and is a guy who can definitely play at Super Rugby level.”

Hall added that while he doesn’t expect the Highlanders to challenge for the Super Rugby Aotearoa title as strongly as the Blues this year, the foundations are in place for a successful future – especially with one key youngster in their ranks.

“One guy that I’ve also had a look around is [Folau] Fakatava and his involvement that he’s been having off the bench,” Hall said.

“He’ll keep Nuggy [Aaron Smith] honest, but you look at how he played during the Mitre 10 Cup and his game management and how much he grew in the last 12 months, so he’ll be massive for them coming off the bench.

“Personally, I know how hard it is to defend him when he’s starting, but coming off the bench when players are tired, he’s one guy that I’m definitely going to be looking forward to seeing for the Highlanders this year.”

This Highlanders and Crusaders will kick-off the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season when they play each other at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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