Last week the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises announced their squads for the 2020 season.
Among the 195 contracted players, there are 46 new names. Across the five teams, there will be a lot of familiar faces missing due to finishing up their New Zealand rugby careers or going on sabbaticals. Regular faces such as Ben Smith, Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick will be absent, opening the way for new talent to develop in a professional environment.
Here is the biggest talking point for each of the five franchises.
Blues: Rieko Ioane making a positional switch
A regular on the wing for both the Blues and All Blacks over the last four seasons, Ioane has been selected in the Blues squad as a midfielder. Ioane is familiar with the midfield as he played his school rugby and occasionally for the Blues in the 12 or 13 jersey.
The positional switch will aid the 23-year-old in re-establishing his international career, which hit a speed bump this year. He will get more touches of the ball (albeit in less space), which will force him to make better attacking decisions. His defence will evolve being closer to the action. A solid showing in the midfield will enhance Ioane’s utility value, especially knowing what he has done in the past on the wing.
With new Blues recruit Beauden Barrett not expected to play until mid-way through the season, Ioane has to shoulder the responsibility of an inexperienced back line. This is a great opportunity for him to show leadership and focus on rediscovering the form he is capable of.
Chiefs: The return of Aaron Cruden
After a stint in France, 50-Test All Black Aaron Cruden makes a return to the Chiefs where he has won two titles in 2012 and 2013. The 30-year-old will add valuable experience to an exciting back line that features Brad Weber, Anton Lienert-Brown and the returning Damian McKenzie.
The Chiefs tried a number of five-eighths last year including McKenzie, his brother Marty and former Rebel Jack Debreczeni. Cruden and McKenzie will provide a dual playmaking threat if new coach Warren Gatland decides to utilise their talents that way. Cruden is the stable hand the Chiefs need at pivot to ensure continuity in their play that they lacked early in 2019.
Hurricanes: Who replaces Beauden Barrett?
With the aforementioned Barrett moving north to the Blues, the Hurricanes will be desperate that one of their five-eighth options is able to steer the talented back line around.
James Marshall, who was a member of their 2016 title-winning team, has 53 Super Rugby caps and offers a good amount of experience and game acumen that will help ignite players like Ngani Laumape and Ben Lam.
Jackson Garden-Bachop and Fletcher Smith will also be vying for the Canes’ number ten jersey. Both had strong domestic seasons in the Mitre 10 Cup and will be looking to cement a regular starting berth at the next level.
There will be a temptation to try Beauden’s younger brother Jordie at pivot after his solid showing against Namibia at the World Cup. Jordie Barrett’s versatility is a great asset but he is danger of not solidifying one position as his own. The Hurricanes and All Blacks see him predominantly as a fullback.
Growing up he played inside centre and that’s where I think is his best position. His tall, 196cm frame combined with his willingness to be involved in the close action along with his passing and kicking game makes him an effective midfielder.
Getting regular game time at 12, though, will be difficult as Laumape has been block-busting in that position. Developing into a steady ten will mature the 22-year-old into a better decision-maker with the extra responsibility of being the Canes’ key playmaker.
Crusaders: A lot of experience is missing
With Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty, Matt Todd, Owen Franks and Jordan Taufua leaving the Crusaders, a total of 836 Super Rugby caps went with their departures. There will be new beginnings as the Christchurch-based franchise rebuilds and aims to win their fourth consecutive title.
Their forward pack has lost their nucleus of previous years and will be reliant on Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and newly appointed captain Scott Barrett to lead up front. Tasman Mako loose forward Ethan Blackadder is going to relish more game time than he has in the past and will build from a strong Mitre 10 Cup campaign.
The Crusaders’ back line will have a settled look and is one of the strongest in the competition. All members of the starting back line in this year’s final are returning in 2020. Six of the seven are current or past All Blacks including Richie Mo’unga, George Bridge, Jack Goodhue and Sevu Reece.
Depending on how the All Blacks coach interviews go, the Crusaders could be looking for a replacement coach as early as next month. This may unsettle their preseason preparations.
The likeable Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson is a hot contender for the All Blacks coaching vacancy. Many people feel his energetic coaching methods will revitalise the All Blacks. Having won three Super Rugby titles and two Mitre 10 Cup titles, Robertson has a successful track record. His lack of coaching at international level may go against him.
Highlanders: Coping with a mass exodus
Out of all the New Zealand franchises, the Highlanders have the biggest rebuild of any squad. The Southerners said goodbye to 16 players from 2019, including Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Liam Squire and Luke Whitelock.
Having 15 newcomers to the team means they will be reliant on the experience of Liam Coltman and Aaron Smith to get used to the level of rugby. A seventh consecutive trip to the playoffs will be a positive season for the young squad.
There are some exciting players to look out for, including fullback Josh McKay, who scored 11 tries and made 921 metres in the Mitre 10 Cup. He is an elusive attacker who always ends up in the right place at the right time. Tongan international Zane Kapeli is one player the opposition won’t be running directly at. He made his name at the World Cup by stopping Billy Vunipola in his tracks.
The Highlanders welcome back Tony Brown into their coaching ranks as an assistant. After earning great plaudits with Japan at the World Cup for their ability to play at a high tempo, Brown is becoming a sought-after coach. He will be the creative mastermind to get the Highlanders’ attack flourishing.
With an early start to Super Rugby (January 31), we do not have long to wait to see whether the New Zealand teams will continue their dominance in Super Rugby. The year 2020 will see a lot of new exciting New Zealand talent be unleashed.