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Following on from the brief analysis of the Australian conference, I wanted to inspect the trans-Tasman rivals and see how the New Zealand conference had fared in the off-season too.
There was a fair bit of inter-competition team swapping, but again it was the pull of Japanese and European money that took a decent chunk of players that were either near the end of their career or recognising early that they were log-jammed behind a host of quality players in the same position.
Like the last venture, I’d like to list the comings and goings of each team’s squad and identify perhaps where in the conference they may finish, who they should rely on and what their two best XVs look like.
Players leaving: The Blues are experiencing a changing of guard with Leon MacDonald swapping places with Tana Umaga and becoming the new head coach a year earlier than probably planned.
This change on top of the disruption of the squad last year through injury means there are a lot of short-term players that are still training around the squad perhaps, but aren’t contracted or as likely to get game time.
This list includes Mike Tamoaieta, Ross Wright, Lyndon Dunshea, Matiaha Martin, Ben Nee-Nee, Sione Havili, Antonio Kiri Kiri, Tamati Tua, Orbyn Leger, Terrence Hepetema and Jordan Hyland.
The big losses on top of that group are Pauliasi Manu, Kara Pryor and Bryn Gatland who join rival Super Rugby sides while Glenn Preston, Daniel Kirkpatrick, George Moala and Murphy Taramai depart too.
The biggest loss, of course, is talismanic backrower Jerome Kaino who was often the only quality, experienced head on the field given the injury rate of Sonny Bill Williams and the departure of Charlie Faumuina.
Replacing Kaino will be the toughest ask, but with the new breed of assistant coaches, particularly Tom Coventry, they should be in good stead.
Players arriving: Despite the massive amount going off the books, the Blues have plenty to boast about in terms of signings.
They have plucked a decent crew from the ITM Cup and, with their main feeder Auckland taking out the premiership, they have put together a decent squad.
The Blues have gained the relatively inexperienced services of Tanielu Tele’a, Harry Plummer, Hoskins Sotutu, Tom Robinson, Ezekiel Lindenmuth and Jed Brown, but only inexperienced in comparison to the regathering of world-class veteran Ma’a Nonu in the centres.
Additionally, they have gained Marcel Renata, Levi Aumua and Karl Tu’inukafe from other Super Rugby franchises, with the latter being perhaps their greatest signing in terms of shoring up the front row.
Most important player: The Blues stick out like a sore thumb in the New Zealand conference over the last few years and it’s not for good reason.
They haven’t been a cohesive unit and have shown glimpses of brilliance, but often quickly besmirched with silly errors or ill discipline. Tu’inukafe coming in is very important for their scrummaging and set piece as he hopes to continue the form that had him burst into the Super Rugby and international scenes last year.
Nonu is also an integral member as the backline looks for stability amid the constant shuffling of Reiko Ioane, Michael Collins, Matt Duffie and Melani Nanai. However, the biggest importance for me is their backrow.
The Blues now have a young, talented and dynamic backrow combination in Dalton Papalii, Blake Gibson and Akira Ioane that they could and should try and build a team around.
Papalii only burst onto the scene last year and Gibson suffered his share of injuries, forcing him to the sideline, but this year should show a great deal more promise if these three could stay on the field and perform at their best.
Predicted conference finish: fifth
1 Karl Tu’inukuafe Alex Hogdman
2 James parsons Leni Apisai
3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi Sione Mafileo
4 Patrick Tuipolotu Scott Scrafton
5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti Josh Goodhue
6 Dalton Papali’i Jimmy Tupou
7 Blake Gibson Jed Brown
8 Akira Ioane Hoskins Sotutu
9 Augustine Pulu Jonathan Ruru
10 Stephen Perofeta Otere Black
11 Reiko Ioane Caleb Clarke
12 Sonny Bill Williams TJ Faiane
13 Ma’a Nonu Levi Aumua
14 Matt Duffie Jordan Trainor
15 Melani Nanai Michael Collins
Coach Leon MacDonald
Players leaving: It’s a tough off-season for the Chiefs as they say farewell to a decent chunk of players. While they may not be plagued with the ridiculous injury toll of 2018, they have plenty of players departing that did respectable to fantastic jobs filling in for the squad last year.
The forwards will be without Mitchell Graham, Sam Prattley, Karl Tu’inukafe, Jeff Thwaites, Dominic Bird, Liam Messam, Matt Matich and Jesse Parete while the backs lose Luteru Laulala, Regan Verney, Tim Nanai-Williams, Toni Pulu, Levi Aumua, Charlie Ngatai, Johnny Fa’auli, Declan O’Donnell as well as Sam McNicol through injury.
The greatest loss is probably Ngatai for mine, a supreme talent burdened by injury. Capable of filling in nearly anywhere in the backline, doing a superb job all the while, the Chiefs look a great deal less creative when he’s not on the field, so it will be a task and a half to fill the void he leaves.
Players arriving: To counter the leaving contingent, the squad will welcome Reuben O’Neill, Jack Debrezceni, Tumua Manu, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Laghlan Whannell and Ataata Moeakiola.
I’m pretty keen to see if Debrezceni can offer anything to the Chiefs after he was hyped early on in his Rebels career, but with his performances teetering out to more average performances after his debut season.
Most important player: The most important player is and remains Brodie Retallick.
The attacking ability of Damian McKenzie is scintillating and Solomon Alaimolo can beat defenders at will, but the behemoth that is Retallick is in a whole other class and is often argued as the best player in the world right now.
He single-handedly stopped a late England comeback against the All Blacks with his continuous lineout steals and his ball distribution and running ability is phenomenal for a man of his size. At his best, he could be the difference between this side finishing top or bottom of their conference.
Predicted conference finish: third
1 Kane Hames Reuben O’Neill
2 Nathan Harris Liam Polwart
3 Nepo Laulala Angus Ta’avao
4 Brodie Retallick Michael Allardice
5 Tyler Ardron Fin Hoeta
6 Lachlan Boshier Mitchell Brown
7 Sam Cane Luke Jacobson
8 Taleni Seu Pita Gus Sowakula
9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi Brad Weber
10 Damian McKenzie Jack Debrezceni
11 Solomon Alaimolo Sean Wainui
12 Alex Nankivell Tumua Manu
13 Anton Lienert-Brown Baylin Sullivan
14 Etene Nanai-Seturo Ataata Moeakiola
15 Shaun Stevenson Marty McKenzie
Coach Colin Cooper
Players leaving: The powerhouse back-to-back champions go into 2019 looking as strong as ever, but will be starting the season without the help of some serious talent in the form of Wyatt Crockett, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Pete Samu, Seta Tamanivalu and Jone Macilai-Tori, all frequent members of their best matchday squad.
Additionally, Donald Brighouse, Chris King, Sam Anderson-Heather, Sebastian Siataga, Jack Stratton, Mike Delaney and Tima Fainga’anuku depart Christchurch after struggling for game time in 2018. The emotional loss of 200-cap Crockett, who briefly had a stadium named after him, is a huge blow, but the departing Tamanivalu leaves the biggest gap in the team as a player with incredible finishing ability and an eye for running through holes invisible to most.
Players arriving: Despite the talent that leaves the squad, the team will gain Ngane Punivai, Leicester Faingaa’anuku, Whetu Douglas and Ere Enari. I’m quite excited for the return of Douglas, however struggling for game time behind Jordan Taufua and Kieran Read was an issue before and nothing has changed.
Most important player: The player with the most to offer this side in 2019 is Ryan Crotty in my opinion.
Consistently forgotten by some for not being as dominant in runs as Ngani Laumape or as silky with the hands as Sonny Bill Williams, Crotty offers a superb defensive game, an ability to distribute well and support his hard-running partner in Jack Goodhue as well as find gaps and read the game better than most out in the centre channels.
His concussion issues and injuries have been a slight speedbump at times when stringing games together, but he truly does tie in the ball-playing off Richie Mo’unga and David Havili with the finishing and running of George Bridge and Goodhue. A full season with Crotty means a great season for the Crusaders.
Predicted conference finish: first
1 Joe Moody Tim Perry
2 Codie Taylor Andrew Makalio
3 Owen Franks Michael Alaalatoa
4 Sam Whitelock Luke Romano
5 Scott Barrett Quinten Strange
6 Jordan Taufua Tom Sanders
7 Matt Todd Billy Harmon
8 Kieran Read Whetu Douglas
9 Bryn Hall Mitchell Drummond
10 Richie Mo’unga Brett Cameron
11 George Bridge Will Jordan
12 Ryan Crotty Tim Bateman
13 Jack Goodhue Braydon Ennor
14 Manasa Mataele Ngani Punivai
15 David Havili Israel Dagg
Coach Scott Robertson
Players leaving: The Highlanders will start 2019 without Guy Millar, Aki Seiuli, Kalolo Tuiloma, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Alex Ainley, Dan Pryor, Josh Renton, Fletcher Smith and Lima Sopoaga.
Luckily for Aaron Mauger and his squad, this doesn’t affect much for the starting side other than the obvious loss of both starting and reserve flyhalf Sopoaga and Smith, respectively.
The main losses come in the prop and flyhalf position, but these have been reasonably covered by the arriving mob, so the biggest concern from this group is how long does it take to fill Sopoaga’s boots and uncover a new starting first five.
Players arriving: The services of Sef Faagase, Marty Banks and Bryn Gatland should immediately bolster the matchday squad. Faagase provided great cover off the bench for the reds for several seasons and the tussle between son-of-great, Gatland, and the hometown hero, Internet favourite Banks for the starting 10 jersey could be interesting.
Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Ray Niuia, Folau Fakatava and Jack Whetton all also join the squad and will provide great cover, particularly Fakatave who has been hyped early as the next Aaron Smith, just bigger and hopefully less promiscuous in airport lavatories.
Most important player: The team is filled with hard-working, but perhaps not as showy, forwards. The team has great depth and, while I’m keen to see how the likes of Liam Squire, Shannon Frizzell, Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt and James Lentjes share game time, the real glue here will be Aaron Smith.
Smith is a great talent with fantastic service, so how he links the front-foot ball his forwards afford him with the new pivot he’ll be standing inside of will be hugely influential to how the backline gels and the team performs overall.
Look for Ben Smith to come into first receiver to assist the transition and turnover and make the job of his namesake slightly easier.
Predicted conference finish: fourth
1 Daniel Lienert-Brown Sef Fa’agase
2 Liam Coltman Ash Dixon
3 Tyrel Lomax Siate Tokolahi
4 Jackson Hemopo Tom Franklin
5 Pari Pari Parkinson Jack Whetton
6 Shannon Frizzell Liam Squire
7 Dillon Hunt James Lentjes
8 Luke Whitelock Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
9 Aaron Smith Kayne Hammington
10 Bryn Gatland Marty Banks
11 Tevita Li Tevita Nabura
12 Thomas Umaga-Jensen Tei Walden
13 Rob Thompson Matt Faddes
14 Waisake Naholo Richard Buckman
15 Ben Smith Josh McKay
Coach Aaron Mauger
Players leaving: Departing the Wellington franchise are Murray Douglas, Michael Fatialofa, Brad Shields, Blade Thompson, Jamie Booth, Ihaia West, Julian Savea, Peter Umaga-Jensen (through injury), Marcel Renata, James O’Reilly, Nathan Vella and TJ Va’a.
The matchday squad is hit quite hard by some of this, particularly the forwards with up and coming Fatialofa and long-serving Shields both huge losses. Savea also departs on a lower note than he’s used to, but is still a big hole to fill as one of the most damaging wingers in All Blacks history when at his peak.
The other big departure is Chris Boyd as he heads to Europe and allows John Plumtree to replace him as head coach.
Players arriving: To combat the 2019 exodus the Hurricanes add Geoff Cridge, Liam Mitchell, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Fletcher Smith, Billy Proctor, James Marshall and Salesi Rayasi.
While it would still be an effort for any of this group to crack the starting team, look for the versatility and experience of Marshall to bolster the bench as well as a likely impact role for well-rounded imports Smith and Bedwell-Curtis.
Most important player: The most important player could be between powerhouse hooker Dane Coles, who makes a full return to Super Rugby, or superstar flyhalf Beauden Barrett, but these two are always important and their role won’t change much this year.
The role however becomes gargantuan for the locks. With Fatialofa leaving and Vaea Fifita really needing game time at blindside if he’s to be considered in that spot for the All Blacks, the onus comes on whoever this year’s locking pair will be.
I’d like to see Sam Lousi continue his 2018 form and link up with rising superstar Isaia Walker-Leawere, but the makeup of the middle row is still far from finalised this early on. Flashy backs are abundant, but the forwards need to add the grit up front if they’re to take top of the conference rights from the Crusaders.
Predicted conference finish: second
1 Toby Smith Chris Eves
2 Dane Coles Ricky Riccitelli
3 Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen Ben May
4 Sam Lousi Geoff Cridge
5 Isaia Walker-Leawere James Blackwell
6 Vaea Fifita Heiden Bedwell-Curtis
7 Ardie Savea Du Plessis Kirifi
8 Gareth Evans Reed Prinsep
9 TJ Perenara Finlay Christie
10 Beauden Barrett Fletcher Smith
11 Ben Lam Salesi Rayasi
12 Ngani Laumape Billy Proctor
13 Matt Proctor Vince Aso
14 Nehe Milner-Skudder Wes Goosen
15 Jordie Barrett James Marshall
Coach John Plumtree