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Opinion

Super Rugby 2020 preview: New Zealand conference

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23rd January, 2020
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With a World Cup year in the rearview mirror, plenty of All Blacks moving on and a high-profile player move, the New Zealand conference will again make for compelling viewing this Super Rugby season.

At The Roar, we’ll be posting a series of previews in the lead-up to the 2020 Super Rugby season, which begins on Friday, January 31. We’ll look at the New Zealand conference today and the South African conference tomorrow, before doing individual team previews for the Australian conference teams next week.

View the full 2020 Super Rugby fixture here.

The teams

Blues

View the full squad here.
Ins: Aaron Carroll, Beauden Barrett, Finlay Christie, Kurt Eklund, Jack Heighton, Jordan Hyland, Tony Lamborn, Joe Marchant, Emoni Narawa, Jared Page, Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa, Ray Niuia, Mark Telea, James Tucker
Outs: Leni Apisai, Levi Aumua, Jed Brown, Michael Collins, Lua Li, Matt Matich, Matt Moulds, Melani Nanai, Ma’a Nonu, Augustine Pulu, Hisa Sasagi, Scott Scrafton, Jordan Trainor, Jimmy Tupou, Sonny Bill Williams

Perennially the cellar-dwellers of the Kiwi conference, the Blues made the biggest splash of any Super Rugby side in the offseason by poaching Beauden Barrett from the Hurricanes. He provides an immediate and enormous update at the flyhalf position – or at least he will when he comes into the side mid-season – but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows on the transfer front with centres Sonny Bill Williams and Ma’a Nonu both heading off to North America.

Joe Marchant – on loan from Harlequins – goes some way to plugging the hole, but they’ll be relying heavily on Rieko Ioane to rediscover his All Black-calibre form in his new position.

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Are they good enough to not get routinely pummelled by their neighbours? This year, the answer might actually be yes. It’s hard to see them topping a conference that still houses the Crusaders and Chiefs, but with the Highlanders and Hurricanes looking considerably weaker than a season ago, they might just have what it takes to finally gain liftoff from last.

Chiefs

View the full squad here.
Ins: Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Leroy Carter, Robb Cobb, Aaron Cruden, Ross Geldenhuys, Donald Maka, Sam McNicol, Lisati Milo-Harris, Kini Naholo, Dylan Nel, Ollie Norris, James Thompson, Adam Thomson, Kaleb Trask, Quinn Tupaea, Tupou Vaa’i
Outs: Jack Debreczeni, Stephen Donald, Kane Hames, Fin Hoeata, Mitch Jacobson, Sefo Kautai, Daymon Leasuasu, Tevita Mafileo, Marty McKenzie, Ataata Moeakiola, Jesse Parete, Liam Polwart, Brodie Retallick, Taleni Seu, Jonathan Taumateine

Following a disappointing quarter-finals exit, the Chiefs made a decent upgrade at the coaching level, replacing Colin Cooper with former Wales international coach Warren Gatland.

Sam Cane could genuinely press a claim for being the best Kiwi forward in Super Rugby this season, while the return of Damian McKenzie from an ACL injury gives the side a huge boost in the halves. Aaron Cruden’s return from France could also be a game-changer, although his age may prevent him from having quite the same impact he did in the championship years.

The big loss, however, is All Blacks superstar Brodie Retallick. There’s no way the Chiefs were going to be able to adequately replace him in one go, but they do look somewhat weak in the lock position.

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After years of alleged underachieving, Gatland will be looking to get the most out of a side that still boasts plenty of talent. With some rival teams vulnerable, could he take them from finals flops to Super Rugby champions?

Aaron Cruden poses during the Chiefs 2020 Super Rugby headshots

Aaron Cruden returns to Super Rugby in 2020. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Crusaders

View the full squad here.
Ins: Fergus Burke, Tom Christie, Inga Finau, Cullen Grace, Siona Havili, Dallas McLeod, Fetuli Paea, Ethan Roots
Outs: Tim Bateman, Ryan Crotty, Israel Dagg, Owen Franks, Ben Funnell, Mitchell Hunt, Tim Perry, Ngane Punivai, Kieran Read, Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd, Sam Whitelock

Ooft. There are some incredibly hefty names on that list of outs. Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Matt Todd, Ryan Crotty and (to a lesser extent) Owen Franks were all All Blacks regulars throughout 2019, so to see five players of that calibre out the door is a crushing blow for the Crusaders.

Still, you need more than five A-graders to win a championship, and you certainly need a lot more to win three on the trot.

Richie Mo’unga is still there, if you’d forgotten, as are Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, George Bridge, Joe Moody and Codie Taylor. Scarcely believable depth has been the key to success for New Zeland on the international stage for some time, so it’s no surprise that’s also the case with the nation’s best Super Rugby side.

If you had your fingers crossed for a Crusaders collapse in 2020, you’ll need to be engaging several more superstitious behaviours for that to take place.

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Crusaders title

A lot of faces from this picture are gone. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Highlanders

View the full squad here.
Ins: Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Michael Collins, Ethan de Groot, Tima Fainga’anuku, Scott Gregory, Mitchell Hunt, Zane Kapeli, Chris Kuridrani, Sione Misiloi, Jona Nareki, Jesse Parete, Ngani Punivai, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Jeff Thwaites, Nathan Vella
Outs: Marty Banks, Richard Buckman, Elliot Dixon, Sef Fa’agase, Matt Faddes, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Dan Hollinshead, Jordan Hyland, Ricky Jackson, Tevita Li, Tyrel Lomax, Waisake Naholo, Ray Niuia, Ben Smith, Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock

There are departures, then there are exoduses and then there’s whatever the heck the Highlanders have gone through since the World Cup.

For a team that lost more than they won in 2019 and only scraped into the finals by one point, losing players like Ben Smith, Liam Squire, Waisake Naholo and even promising youngster Tyrel Lomax looks like a recipe for disaster.

Rising up the ladder is almost out of the question immediately, with a return to the finals looking dubious at best.

A massive injection of youth into the squad will no doubt do wonders in the years to come, but it’s hard to see 2020 being anything but a year of pain for the Highlanders.

Aaron Mauger, head coach of the Highlanders

Aaron Mauger and the Highlanders have their work cut out for them this year. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

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Hurricanes

View the full squad here.
Ins: Jamie Booth, Devan Flanders, Tyrel Lomax, Pouri Rakete-Sones, Scott Scrafton, Murphy Taramai, Jonathan Taumateine, Kobus van Wyk
Outs: Beauden Barrett, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Finlay Christie, Geoff Cridge, Chris Eves, Andries Ferreira, Ross Geldenhuys, Sam Henwood, Richard Judd, Sam Lousi, Nehe Milner-Skudder, James O’Reilly, Matt Proctor, Salesi Rayasi, Toby Smith, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen

Circumstances look to have conspired against the Hurricanes in a big way coming into this season. For every winner in sports, there is always a loser and, as much as the Blues have been celebrated for poaching Beauden Barrett, the ‘Canes have been left without their star playmaker for 2020.

While they largely avoided a massive exodus of All Blacks talent, they did lose coach John Plumtree to the national side at very short notice. Not to disrespect replacement Jason Holland by any means, but the circumstances really made him the only choice – not necessarily the best one.

Couple that misfortune with the fact Ardie Savea will miss the majority of the season through injury and it looks very unlikely that the Wellington team will be able to pick up a league-leading 12 wins again this season.

Jordie Barrett of the Hurricanes talks to his teammates

Jordie Barrett is now THE man for the Hurricanes. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Players to watch

Beauden Barrett (Blues)
It’s the easiest of answers, but Beauden Barrett is easily the most high-profile player swap we’ve seen in Super Rugby for some time. The fact he’s being tasked with turning the fortunes of New Zealand’s problem franchise around makes for an even juicier storyline.

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After 34 tries in 125 appearances for the Hurricanes, all eyes will be on the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year as he looks to lead the Blues into the promised land.

Unfortunately for Auckland fans, Barrett won’t be available for selection until mid-April as he takes an extended break from rugby following the World Cup. Still, all eyes will be pointed his way when he’s wearing blue.

Beauden Barrett poses during a Blues portraits session

Beauden Barrett poses during a Blues portraits session. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes)
Keeping in the family, youngest brother of the Barrett clan – Jordie – has a huge opportunity to take the helm at the Hurricanes and really make a name for himself.

Having played as a fullback for most of his career – with some appearances on the wings or at centre – Beauden’s departure could see the 22-year-old slot in at flyhalf and form a formidable partnership with TJ Perenara.

He’s still got plenty of time to prove himself to the rugby world but, with the conference in flux right now, this would be a great year to do it.

Aaron Cruden (Chiefs)
Following some time away in France, Cruden returns to the team he won back-to-back championships with in the hope of pulling them over the hill once more.

Can the 31-year-old be expected to put the team on his back? Probably not. But, if he can stay healthy, he may just prove to be the difference-maker the Chiefs have lacked in their more recent disappointing finals appearances.

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Prediction

While some New Zealand sides look to have been hit hard by All Black retirements and other player movements, the New Zealand conference should still be strong enough to lap up the lion’s share of finals appearances.

The Crusaders and Chiefs look odds-on to sit atop the group when all is said and done. The Blues look like they’ll finally turn things around, but we’re not yet sold that they’ll be able to keep pace.

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Still, the Auckland-based side should rise to the lofty heights of third place, while the Hurricanes and Highlanders may find themselves in a real scrap to make the finals.

1. Crusaders
2. Chiefs
3. Blues
4. Hurricanes
5. Highlanders