Breaking Down the 2014 New Zealand Super Rugby Squads
The New Zealand Super Rugby squads for 2014 have been announced, and as always they bring with them plenty of intrigue. Some have changed substantially, while others remain similar to last season.
With this comes changes in the strengths and weaknesses of each team, which will influence how they look to play the game.
This article breaks down each team's new squad, looking at the impact player movement will have on them, as well as the areas where they will be both strong and vulnerable.
All squads are sourced from TVNZ.
Benji Marshall, Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Jerome Kaino, Pita Ahki, Tom Donnelly.
Anthony Boric, Quentin MacDonald, Rene Ranger, Ali Williams.
The Blues have selected perhaps the most intriguing squad, given the gambles they have taken by picking a handful of stars whom have lacked form at this level over the past two seasons.
Ma'a Nonu returns after so famously leaving the franchise after just one year in 2012, and will need to show some better form or he may find himself struggling to find a contract. Tony Woodcock is in a similar situation, once a very good player, but struggled with the Highlanders in 2013 and will return home to the Blues in 2014 where he will need to make more of an impact.
Jerome Kaino returns too after leaving New Zealand at the peak of his powers in 2011. He will bring physicality that will make a huge difference to the Blues in the contact situations.
The most interesting signing though is that of Benji Marshall, the rugby league superstar who at the age of 28 has decided to switch codes. Undoubtedly he is a fantastic athlete, but whether he can adapt to the game remains questionable. If he finds his feet quickly, he could be huge in seeing the Blues do well as he is a player with potential to do great things.
They remain a young team that will bring plenty of enthusiasm and possess plenty of flair out wide. The likes of Charlies Piutau, Francis Saili and Frank Halai, along with Nonu and Marshall, are all capable of cutting a defence to pieces and will be one of the strengths of this team.
Their other strength will come in their loose forwards, as with Steven Luatua, Luke Braid and Kaino they have a well-balanced trio who will work hard on defence while also being strong ball runners.
The tight five will be what determines how successful they are. There is no doubt there is talent here, but whether they can perform or indeed get their top team on the field is another thing, as Woodcock and Keven Mealamu have struggled with form and injury over the past 12 months.
They should be an improvement on 2013, though, and will be a tough team, especially when they bring their physical game, which will allow their dangerous backs to really threaten.
Jamie Mackintosh, Liam Squire, Robbie Fruean, James Lowe, Mils Muliaina, Tom Marshall.
Craig Clarke, Richard Kahui, Fritz Lee, Brendon Leonard, Lelia Masaga, Patrick Osbourne.
The two-time defending champion Chiefs hold onto the majority of the side that has seen them become the team to beat in this competition. Co-captain Craig Clarke is the biggest loss, a hard-working lock who was heavily involved in the game and good at lineout time. Richard Kahui is the other notable loss, although his injuries saw him miss the majority of the 2013 season anyway, so his loss perhaps won't be felt so badly.
In Mils Muliaina and Tom Marshall they have picked up two very good outside backs who could do plenty for the team. Muliaina enjoyed a 100-test All Black career and returns to New Zealand after a two-year stint in Japan. He is an intelligent player whose positional play is excellent and is safe under the high ball. Whether he is still capable of playing at this level will be a determining factor in how much influence he has on this team.
Tom Marshall, on the other hand, is a player on the rise. He has a good skill set and is dangerous on attack. Certainly it would not be a stretch to say he may find himself wearing a black jersey in the next few years.
The key for this team will be to keep doing what they have been doing. Their defence over the past two years has been rock solid, both committed and well organised. On many occasions they have successfully defended their line for long periods, which has been the No. 1 reason for their successes. You can expect Liam Messam and Brodie Retallick to be strong here, while Sam Cane and Tanerau Latimer will be prominent in the loose.
Along with this. though, they have a dangerous back line, with Aaron Cruden pulling the strings through his ability to take the ball to the line and put his outside men into holes. They have no shortage of finishing power, with all of the backs attacking threats that defences will want to shut down.
They have a strong set piece too, which will ensure this team gets plenty of ball to work with.
Once again this team looks to be the one to beat and will look to compete to achieve the first three-peat since the Crusaders' effort between 1998 and 2000.
Colin Slade, Ray Lee-Lo.
Robbie Fruean, Daniel Carter, Shane Christie.
They are the most successful franchise in the history of Super Rugby, but it has been five years since their last championship and the Chiefs are now the top dogs of the New Zealand conference. The Crusaders will be looking to regain their crown, possessing a strong side as always with very few changes from last year.
The one key change which will have a great effect is that at fly-half, where Daniel Carter is unavailable while he takes a sabbatical. This is a huge blow as there is no one better in the position than Carter, but there is plenty of depth there and the Crusaders should be okay without him.
Colin Slade will effectively replace him, the former All Black who is just finding his feet after a number of injuries which has seen him play little rugby over the past two years. He is a confidence player, but when on form he takes the ball to the line and is dangerous both as a runner and when creating for his outside men. The key will be to give him the confidence to allow him to flourish.
Other than this, the side will be very much the same as the one which finished last season, and as we all know that was a team that was playing some very good rugby. Their forward pack is strong at both set piece and in open play, boasting an entire All Black starting eight and a handful on the bench.
While their back line is not quite at the same level, it still remains one of the best in the competition. In Israel Dagg they have one of the most electrifying players in the world, while Ryan Crotty, Johnny McNicholl and Tom Taylor are all players whose games have come a long way in recent times.
Expect them to be strong all around the park, playing intelligent rugby by building pressure and then unleashing their backs at the right time.
Definitely a team that could go all the way and will almost certainly feature at playoff time.
Shane Christie, Matias Diaz, Gareth Evans, Tom Franklin, Kurt Baker, Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Osbourne, Willie Ripia, Winston Stanley.
Andrew Hore, Jamie Mackintosh, Tony Woodcock, Tamati Ellison, Ma'a Nonu, Colin Slade, Hosea Gear.
After a mass exodus of top-class players the Highlanders look to be very much in a rebuilding phase. Indeed, each of the seven key losses above are All Blacks and were all key names in the Highlanders side in 2013. As it turned out, not all of these men performed to their ability, but the losses of Tamati Ellison and Hosea Gear in particular will hurt as they were two of their better players over the past two years.
They have been replaced by a handful of youngsters who have all impressed in the ITM Cup, but remain unproven at Super Rugby level. Certainly they won't lack for effort and will be a team that will scrap hard, but they may lack the stars to really put teams away.
In Ben Smith they have arguably the most dangerous attacking player in the world, while Aaron Smith is a halfback with a fast pass and a good running game. Up front, Nasi Manu will be key from No. 8, a hard worker who is strong in contact. Their locks will be a strong point too, with Josh Bekhuis and Brad Thorn both mobile around the field, both players with high work rates.
Other than this, though, they lack star power. Their front row might struggle, although Liam Coltman is a promising youngster who will get through a ton of work. They still haven't found a blindside flanker replacement for Adam Thomson, while their midfield now lacks the experience that Tamati Ellison brought.
If their young players can bring their form from the ITM Cup to the Highlanders, they should be competitive in most of their games, but this could be a tall order. That said, every year there is one team that looks significantly weaker than the others on paper, but usually performs adequately. Who is to say the Highlanders will be any different?
Mark Abbott, Marty Banks, Hadleigh Parkes.
Jason Eaton, Ray Lee-Lo, Karl Lowe, Tusi Pisi, Ben May.
The Hurricanes have come a long way since their disastrous season of 2011. 2012 saw them undergo a series of changes and put their faith in a young squad which was written off, but performed admirably.
Much of that team remains and makes up the 2014 squad, although they now possess far more experience and are better for it. Their back line is full of threats, with Julian Savea and Cory Jane both being strong runners who are adept at finding their way to the try line. In Beauden Barrett they have a dangerous running fly-half, while inside him TJ Perenara is a strong halfback who has both a good passing and kicking game.
Conrad Smith remains the rock, perhaps the best tackler in the world and a hard runner on attack. He will pair with Tim Bateman to make for a solid midfield.
Their forwards might not be quite so strong, but should be good enough to provide their backs with ball to work with. In the tight five they are mobile and will be fast around the field, but their set piece could be a weakness. Their loose forwards are all hard workers who will never stop and are particularly good ball runners.
How well this team does will depend on how much good ball the back line gets, but one would have to think they will be knocking on the door of the playoffs at the very least.