Super Rugby 2011: New Zealand Conference Preview
Another season of Super Rugby is almost upon us, and in two days' time, the Hurricanes and Highlanders will get the 2011 competition underway for a 16th year.
2011 sees the competition take on a new format, where the teams will be divided into three conferences of five teams based upon which country they are from.
Each of the 14 teams from last year maintain their positions in the competition along with a new team, the Melbourne Rebels, bringing the total number of Australian teams to five.
Each team will play each other team in their own conference twice, while they will play four teams from each of the other conferences once, two away and two at home.
This makes for more local derbies and will surely boost the level of competitiveness between the teams as they now have extra incentive to get one over their fellow countrymen.
At the end of the round-robin, the top qualifier from each conference will progress through to the knockout stages along with the next three top teams regardless of the conference.
The top two qualifiers will have a week off, while the next four will play off in quarterfinal-style games, where the winners go on to play the top two qualifiers in the semifinals for a spot in the final.
In this article, I look at the New Zealand conference and preview their chances in the 2011 competition.
The New Zealand teams have traditionally been the strongest of the three countries participating, with 10 of 15 championships coming from New Zealand.
Also, every New Zealand team has contested at least one final; in contrast, only three South African teams and two Australian teams have achieved this.
In recent years it has been South Africa's Bulls that have had the edge over the traditional strength of New Zealand, but will 2011 be the year that sees the kiwi's claim back the dominance that was theirs for so long?
In the early years of Super Rugby, the Highlanders were very strong: always one of the top teams, particularly at home where they went undefeated for three years.
But that was a long time ago, and it's been nine years since they last made the top four. Lack of top class players has been a problem, but in 2011, they have the goods to finally turn around their bad fortunes.
A new look team will take the field this year, containing a lot of young players making them a team to watch for the future.
Their strength will be in the forwards where they retain the core of the successful Southland forward pack as well as adding some good players from around the country.
Jamie Mackintosh, Jason Rutledge and Chris King will make up a front row which will be as good as any. Mackintosh is a good leader, who gets through a lot of work and takes over Jimmy Cowan as captain.
Rutledge had a brilliant season last year and was one of the top players during the ITM Cup. He will play a large role in the Highlanders this year.
King has a good work rate and will be of value to them, while Halani Aulika will look to build on a very good ITM Cup to force his way into the starting line up.
Josh Bekhuis and Tom Donnelly are two very good locks and will ensure the Highlanders win most of their lineout ball as well as offering their very high work rates around the park.
Adam Thomson is the key figure in the loose-forwards and will look to carry on his good form from the past few seasons to help the Highlanders secure more ball around the breakdown.
However, it's the backs where they have lacked in the past few years, and some heavy recruiting has given them a new-look backline for 2011.
Jimmy Cowan will return at halfback, while marquee signing Colin Slade will slot in outside him at flyhalf. How well Slade plays could determine how well the Highlanders play, as he offers a lot on both attack and defence.
He will miss the start of the competition with a broken jaw, meaning Wellington youngster Lima Sopoaga will get a chance to show what he can do. Sopoaga looks to be a very good player, but he may struggle with the increased pace of Super Rugby.
The midfield is nothing flashy but Shaun Treeby and Siale Piutau are both good signings who could become top players, while Kendrick Lynn returns after a good season last year.
Ben Smith will be the focal point of the team's back three and will be their main threat on attack.
Whether this backline has what it takes to help the Highlanders win games remains to be seen. They certainly have plenty of promise, but it may be a few years before they can really fulfill that promise.
And that's how I see the Highlanders this year. They will be better than last year and will push every side to the limit, but they won't be one of the top teams, still being a year or two off just yet.
Key Players: Jason Rutledge, Tom Donnelly, Adam Thomson, Colin Slade.
Prediction: Fifth in New Zealand Conference.
The Chiefs have predominantly been a middle of the road team in their 15 years in Super Rugby. In 2004, they finally cracked the top four but were unable to progress any further after a loss to the Brumbies.
2009 saw them make another playoff appearance, this time making it all the way to the final, where they struck a red-hot Bulls team at Loftus Versfeld and were flattened 61-17.
The 2010 season was one of much frustration for Chiefs fans. After getting off to a dream start with three wins from their first three games on the road, they were unable to capitalise and only managed one more win for the rest of the season.
The loss of their captain Mils Muliaina played a big part in this, and his return for the 2011 season can only be good news for Chiefs fans.
Muliaina spearheads a lethal back-three that also includes Sitiveni Sivivatu and Lelia Masaga.
Before sustaining what was effectively a season-ending injury, Sivivatu was one of the most dangerous wingers in world rugby and the Chiefs will be hoping he can return to form for another season.
Masaga is a one-time All Black who has freakish speed and is one of the most slippery players anywhere.
They have two quality flyhalves in Mike Delaney and Stephen Donald. Delaney was one of the best players in the ITM Cup last year and is a legitimate contender for a place in the World Cup squad.
Donald copped a lot of criticism last year after a below-average All Black tour but always performs well at Super Rugby level and will be a key figure for the Chiefs.
The biggest talking point of the Chiefs backline has been the inclusion of All Black legend Tana Umaga. Umaga was one of the best players in the world in his prime and ranks amongst the all-time great centres.
But at the age of 37, he is well past his best, and it is unclear what his role in the Chiefs will be. It is likely that he is there as much for his off-field presence as his on-field game.
There is no doubt that he had an enormous impact on a young Counties-Manakau team last year and will look to have the same impact on this Chiefs team.
He has a lot of experience, which will prove valuable to the other players. If there is any doubt over this, consider one point. Umaga was part of the Hurricanes in 1996 and played in the first-ever Super Rugby game against the Blues. Today, he is the only remaining player from the first season of the competition.
It will most likely be their forward pack that will determine whether they are successful this season, though. It is a pack made up of a lot of good ITM Cup players who are looking to make their name at the next level.
Nathan White, or 'Captain Fantastic' as he's known in the Waikato, was very good for the Moo-Loo men last year, and will want to prove himself at the next level with a good Super Rugby campaign.
Hika Elliot had a break-out tour with the All Blacks at the end of 2011 and will no doubt be the driving force behind this Chiefs pack.
In the locks they have picked up Hayden Triggs and Isaac Ross from the Highlanders and Crusaders, while Callum Retallick and Craig Clarke return for another season.
Romana Graham has been rewarded for an outstanding ITM Cup with a contract and will no doubt see some playing time this year, too.
Their starting loose-forward trio will most likely consist of Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer and Colin Bourke.
Messam and Latimer both have All Black experience and are generally good players at Super Level, while Bourke is arguably the best current player in New Zealand to not wear the black jersey.
To go with this, they have a good backup openside in Scott Waldrom and the young Fritz Lee who impressed in 2010.
It looks to be a solid pack and if everyone plays well, they will be able to unleash their dangerous backline. However, that is a big if.
They have a pack consisting of a lot of good players without any who are going to change a game as a McCaw, Kaino or Read can. This could be a problem, but as long as everyone consistently performs, they should still be competitive.
Key Players: Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Liam Messam, Hika Elliot.
Prediction: Fourth in New Zealand Conference.
It seems a long time ago now, but the Blues were once almost indestructible.
In the first few years of Super 12, they boasted the likes of Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, Zinzan Brooke, Jonah Lomu and try-scoring machine Joeli Vidiri along with several other top quality All Blacks.
They won the first two editions of Super Rugby with apparent ease, and it wasn't until the final of the 1998 season that they were finally dethroned.
Since then, it's been slow going for the Blues. Despite a memorable year in 2003 which saw them win a third championship, they have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the competition.
Last year was no different, and no one could predict their form from week to week. They certainly were capable of beating the best, as they showed through their win over the Bulls using a template that would later be used by the All Blacks in the international season.
But these performances were interrupted with too many second-rate, error-ridden games which saw the Blues finish with a 7-6 win-loss record, finishing seventh on the points table. If there is one thing that will hold them back from success in 2011, it will be this.
They have retained the bulk of their squad from 2010 and have made some very good additions in Daniel Braid and Ali Williams.
One of their problems last year was the lack of a prominent openside flanker to turnover ball. While Serge Lilo is no doubt a good player, he is not in the same class as the McCaws and Braids of this world.
Getting Daniel Braid back into the mix should solve this, as there are few better at securing a loose ball than Braid, who comes off an outstanding season where he was arguably the top No. 7 in the competition.
He will pair with the hard-hitting Jerome Kaino on the side of the scrum to form one of the top flanker combinations in the competition.
Ali Williams makes his return after a two-year break with an Achilles tendon injury. He will be one of the most watched men in New Zealand rugby over the next few months to see if he is still up to the standard of being an All Black and if he can force his way into the World Cup squad.
The Blues are led by Keven Mealamu who had arguably the best year of his career last year and will look to build on that this year and will be looking for a strong start to the season with the Blues.
He is joined in the front-row by All Black props Tony Woodcock and John Afoa, forming a very strong front row that will match up against any in the competition.
They have no shortage of talent in their backs with a likely starting backline of Alby Matthewson, Stephen Brett, Benson Stanley, Rene Ranger, Joe Rokocoko, Jared Payne and Isaia Toeava, who possess flair, skill and a tough edge on defence.
Five of these men have test match experience, and the Stanley-Ranger midfield is arguably the hardest-hitting midfield combination in the competition.
The main concern over the backline is at flyhalf with Stephen Brett. There is no doubt that Brett has a ton of potential, but his consistency is an issue and his form is very erratic.
Being in such a pivotal position, Brett must work on this to ensure that the Blues are able to unleash their dangerous backs outside him.
There is no question over whether this Blues outfit has the tools to do the job. They have a strong front row, a world class lock, a very good loose forward trio, as well as a dynamic backline, but it will be how consistently they can perform to their potential that will determine how well they do in this year's competition.
Key Players: Jerome Kaino, Keven Mealamu, Daniel Braid, Rene Ranger.
Prediction: Third in New Zealand Conference.
Every year we ask the question. Will this be the year of the Hurricanes?
Throughout their history they have been frustratingly inconsistent and earned a reputation of 'expect the unexpected.' Teams that have been loaded with talent have faltered and been unable to fulfill the potential their squad has possessed.
In more recent years, however, the Hurricanes have been very good, making a final and two semi-finals in the past five years, a stat they will be looking to add to in 2011.
Their 2010 campaign was much like the Chiefs. They started off very well, before falling away through the middle and despite coming right nearer to the end of the season, were unable to make the top four.
This year, they have a team with enormous potential. Their backline is simply lethal and their top forward pack will be a match for any team as well.
At halfback, they will most likely start with Tyson Keats, who is a good runner and was very good during 2010. However, as Piri Weepu recovers from his broken leg, Keats will have to be content with being the No. 2 halfback, as the top halfback in the country will take over the starting position.
The up-and-coming flyhalf Aaron Cruden will be their first-choice No.10 this year after finding his feet in 2010. He had a mixed first year at the top level, with glimpses of good form, but he often struggled with the pace of the game, and his kicking game needs work. Expect him to be a much better player this year.
In the midfield, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith team up to form the best midfield combination in the competition. Last year, they were the two best midfielders in the world and will be just as dominant this year.
Nonu is a strong runner who is a handful for defences, while Conrad Smith is good at taking the gap and setting up his outside man as well as being the best defensive back in the world.
A back three of Hosea Gear, Julian Savea and Cory Jane is very intimidating. Gear is one of the most devastating players in the world with his size, speed and strength, and youngster Savea seems to possess very similar qualities. Jane has a top all-round game in which it is hard to find a weakness.
Up front, they have a good but not great forward pack. Neemia Tialata and John Schwalger are both reasonable props and are good scrummagers but don't offer a lot around the field.
Andrew Hore will be their key forward and plays the game very hard and has a terrific work rate. He won't need to look far for incentive, either, as he looks to reclaim the title of top hooker in New Zealand back off Keven Mealamu.
Jason Eaton and Jeremy Thrush are both good locks and should see the Hurricanes lineout will function well.
In the loose forwards Victor Vito and Karl Lowe form a good flanker combination while the experienced Rodney So'oialo will lead the pack from No. 8 and will be keen to show that he's still a top-class player despite being dropped from the All Blacks.
Their set piece should be good and with three very good loose-forwards they should be efficient around the breakdown.
It will be how well their tight forwards perform around the field that will determine the quality of ball they get.
If they do get good quality ball, they will be very hard to stop once Nonu, Smith, Gear, Savea and Jane are let loose, which will see them win plenty of games.
Key Players: Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Hosea Gear, Cory Jane.
Prediction: Second in New Zealand Conference.
The Crusaders are quite simply the most successful franchise in Super Rugby history. They boast seven championships, two runner-ups and another three top fours. No other franchise even comes close to this record and such has been their dominance that they are the favourites for almost every season.
This season is no different. After finishing fourth last year, the Crusaders have improved their squad with the additions of Israel Dagg, Sonny Bill Williams and Matt Todd.
Dagg was the Highlanders top player last year and translated this form to the test match arena during the Tri-Nations. He is a game-breaker and will be a large part of the Crusaders make up.
He will team up with his Hawkes Bay mate Zac Guilford and Canterbury speedster Sean Maitland, meaning they won't be lacking any pace or flair out wide.
The midfield pairing of Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean is an exciting combination. Williams has become a superstar over the past six months and has an offload that has become very hard to stop. With Fruean running off him, they will be very dangerous and hard to contain.
Daniel Carter at flyhalf is the world's best back and has the best all-round game of anyone in the world.
Andrew Ellis and Kahn Fotuali'i are both very good halfbacks, although if there is one area that may be considered a weakness in the Crusaders this would be it.
Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and George Whitelock make up the best loose-forward trio in the competition and will no doubt be a large part in the Crusaders game plan.
Matt Todd looks to be a very good backup to McCaw and could even push for a spot in the All Blacks World Cup team.
Brad Thorn and Sam Whitelock will be the two starting locks but are backed up by the experienced Chris Jack which, next to the Bulls, is the top locking combination in the competition.
The front row of Owen Franks, Corey Flynn and Ben Franks may not be the best in the scrum but will offer a lot around the field and will be highly influential in allowing their loose-forwards to prosper.
They are a team with world-class players all over the field and will be hard to stop as opposing teams can't just target one or two players because of the number of threats around the park.
I'm picking them to win it all, but they will face stern challenges from the Bulls and Stormers.
Key Players: Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Daniel Carter, Israel Dagg.