Super Rugby: New Zealand Conference Pre-Season Power Rankings
Super Rugby season is upon us once more, giving the best of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa the chance to go up against each other and claim the title of the best club team in the southern hemisphere.
As always, there is plenty of intrigue heading into the season, with a number of teams having made some key moves that could either pay-off or backfire.
Here we look at the New Zealand conference, ranking the five teams as they are heading into the season.
A mass exodus has seen the Highlanders left with a relatively new team, losing many of the stars of 2013 and replacing them with a handful of young prospects. This may not be such a bad thing though, as it was many of the superstars who were a large part of the problem in what ended up being a miserable campaign.
This year's team will no doubt try hard, they have a lot of energetic forwards who will get around the park and play a no-nonsense style.
However, they may lack some spark in the backs, especially in the midfield where with Shaun Treeby, Phil Burleigh and Jason Emery, they have three solid players, rather than three game-breakers.
They do have a couple of live-wires in Aaron Smith and Ben Smith, both first-choice All Blacks who are capable of sparking something and will need to lift the rest of the team.
Up front Brad Thorn and Nasi Manu are the two stand out names, both are hard workers who will provide physicality, while Liam Coltman is another in the same mould who will no doubt be known around the world sooner rather than later.
Expect them to fight hard but in the end they might find themselves a bit flimsy in the backs and may just lack some of that class the other teams possess.
The Blues are the biggest boom or bust team in this year's competition. They have certainly acquired some good players in the offseason, but whether they can actually perform on the field will determine how far they will go.
Most notable of these is rugby league convert Benji Marshall. Arguably the most electric player in the NRL over the past decade, Marshall is a player capable of putting his outsides into gaps and bamboozling the defence with his elusive running.
However, rugby union is a very different game and how well his skills transfer will be one of the biggest questions of the early part of the season. If he does as well in union as he did in league, he could make the Blues a very dangerous team.
Outside him Ma'a Nonu returns after a disappointing year with the Highlanders in 2013. Despite his top form with the All Blacks over the past five years, Nonu has failed to fire at all in Super Rugby time and again and one must wonder if there is any reason this should change in 2014.
That being said, if he was to fire, he is a handful for defences and would make his team a whole lot better.
We also see the return of Tony Woodcock and Jerome Kaino, both players with tremendous reputations, but again, how they will fit in remains to be seen.
Woodcock is getting older and is not as prominent around the field as he used to be, while Kaino will have to adjust to the more physical nature of Super Rugby, after having played in Japan for the past two years.
Along with these men they retain the bulk of last year's team, with Rene Ranger and Ali Williams being the only notable losses. This is a good sign, as this was a young Blues team in 2013 and showed that they could grow into something quite special.
There is plenty of fire power in the back line, with Charles Piutau, Frank Halai and Francis Saili all impressing over the past 12 months, while the likes of Steven Luatua, Luke Braid and Charlie Faumuina will ensure they are a presence up front.
How far they go will come down to how well the new players fit in, making them the toughest team to place on these rankings.
The Hurricanes retain the majority of their team from 2013 and with it boast a number of dangerous combinations that are starting to work together well. Their back line is dangerous right through, but also possess plenty of intelligence to know how to use it.
Julian Savea is arguably the most dangerous attacking player in the world, while Conrad Smith's all-round game will be invaluable, both safe on defence and a good decision-maker on attack. The inside pairing of T.J. Perenara and Beauden Barrett are strong too, offering a spark on attack while also possessing the brains to steer the team around the park well.
Up front they should be solid enough, boasting the most mobile of the New Zealand front rows and a strong loose forward trio who will bring physicality in contact situations.
They may lack some of the resolve and consistency of the Crusaders and Chiefs but expect the Hurricanes to be there or thereabouts come playoffs time.
The Crusaders are the most successful franchise in the history of Super Rugby but in recent years they have struggled to get the job done, despite making it to the final stages of the competition.
They still boast a plethora of names, including Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock and Israel Dagg. Even without Dan Carter, they can claim to have two All Blacks in Tom Taylor and Colin Slade to replace him and the fact they can lose arguably the world's best back and still be formidable speaks volumes about the depth in this side.
It is hard to find a weakness in their team, as All Blacks are littered throughout every position. They will be tough and uncompromising up front and dynamic in the loose as always. Their backs will be dangerous and you can expect them to be slick and clinical, making the most of all of their opportunities.
While they may come in at No. 2 on these rankings, they could have just as easily been No. 1 and they will be right up there with the favourites to win the championship.
The two-time defending champions naturally enter the season as the team to beat, retaining the majority of the side that won the title last year. Last year's co-captain Craig Clarke will be a huge loss, as his work rate and leadership was huge to this team's success, as will centre Richard Kahui, a strong runner with a high skill level.
However, they retain a hard edge up front, with Liam Messam and Brodie Retallick leading the way, both fighters in the tight who will throw themselves relentlessly into contact. In Sam Cane and Tanerau Latimer they have two tearaway openside flankers of quality, while their front row should hold up okay.
Their back line runs through first five-eighth Aaron Cruden, a player who takes the ball to the line well, giving his outside men the ball on the front foot and can often draw defenders to open up gaps. Outside him, Tim Nanai-Williams is dangerous in space, while the return of Mils Muliaina will interest many people, as he tries to prove he has what it takes to play at this level once more.
Under Dave Rennie this team will be well-drilled, make few mistakes and be well organised on defence. They were a tough team to crack last year and it is hard to see them being anything different this year.
For now, they are the favourites to win it all.
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