The return of professional rugby union is only days away with Super Rugby Aotearoa kicking off on Saturday, three months after the 2020 Super Rugby season was halted.
The five New Zealand franchises will play a double round robin over ten weeks. With no playoff fixtures, the winner will be the team that accumulates the most competition points in their eight games.
Following the New Zealand government’s announcement on Monday that the country is going down to Level 1 restrictions, spectators are able to attend games.
Blues CEO Andrew Hore is expecting a large crowd to the Blues versus Hurricanes game on Sunday.
“We’re thinking in excess of 35,000 [will turn up], which will be an amazing result and will make for a fantastic atmosphere and a massive lift for the players of both sides,” he said.
Here is a talking point for each of the franchises leading into the competition.
Blues: The impact of Beauden Barrett and Dan Carter
Marquee signing Beauden Barrett will finally don the Blues jersey after a hiatus at the start of the season. The 28-year-old comes into the squad on the back of an all-time record for the Bronco test.
Based on his fitness testing he is great condition to take the field against his former team the Hurricanes on Sunday. Unfortunately, younger brother Jordie is expected to be ruled out due to injury. Blues fans will be hoping Barrett can lift the team to another level against New Zealand opposition where they have struggled in recent years.
When Barrett was signed the expectation was he would solve the Blues’ ongoing problems at first five with his repertoire of skills. Barrett has proven he can play fullback at the highest level where he has more room to roam. Coach Leon MacDonald has Otere Black as a pivot option. Black proved to be a reliable tactician earlier in the year.
The signing of All Blacks legend Dan Carter boosts the Blues’ playmaker stocks to go alongside Barrett and Black. The 38-year-old still has some gas left in the tank after having his season cut short in Japan. I would imagine he will be used later in the competition. His wealth of experience with 18 seasons of professional rugby is valuable for the Blues squad. With 1598 international points to his name, the Blues have one of the best goal-kickers to play the game to call upon.
Chiefs: Loose forward abundance
The Hamilton-based team is stacked with quality loose forwards. With an expected high attrition rate in this all New Zealand competition, having plenty of hard-grafting loosies will be beneficial. Coach Warren Gatland will have a hard time choosing his best trio.
Their options include new All Blacks captain Sam Cane and arguably the best loose forward of Super Rugby before the competition was stopped in March, Lachlan Boshier. The Taranaki man led the competition with 17 turnovers, with many of those at crucial times and was looking like a definite All Blacks candidate. Sam Cane is set to miss the first round with a stiff back.
Last season’s All Blacks bolter Luke Jacobson has barely played any rugby since September 2019 and will be desperate for game time. The talented loose forward has been plagued with concussion issues and injuries since arriving on the scene last year. Staying fit will be key if he wants to remain in All Blacks contention.
Pita Gus Sowakula is an athletic number eight with size and speed. He complements the work Cane and Boshier do at the breakdown with explosive ball carries. The Fijian is a great lineout option as well coming from a basketball background in his younger days.
Hurricanes: The return of Ardie Savea
The 2019 World Player of the Year nominee Ardie Savea will make his playing return after sustaining an injury in the World Cup semi-final. The loose forward will be champing at the bit to get back on the field after his brilliant form last year.
Savea is expected to pack down at the back of the scrum. He will utilise his great acceleration and leg drive in contact to get over the advantage line. He made an average of 5.9 metres per carry in Super Rugby in 2019. This was backed up with a 94 per cent tackle success rate.
With his return he will form a dual threat with the nuggety Du’Plessis Kirifi at openside flanker. At 181 centimetres and 96 kilos, the 23-year-old plays well above his weight and will always be contesting at the breakdown. The Hurricanes have the ever reliable Gareth Evans who can cover all loose forward positions, as well as Vaea Fifita, who is an athletic blindside/lock option.
Crusaders: Know how to win New Zealand derbies (and Super Rugby titles)
Super Rugby’s most successful team (ten titles) will go into this adapted version as favourites based on their history of dominating New Zealand derbies. They have amassed impressive winning records against New Zealand teams including 26 wins and 11 losses against the Highlanders, and a 24-11 record versus the Blues.
Their record against the Chiefs is 21-15, however since 2011 the Chiefs have the edge 11-10. The Chiefs defeated the Crusaders earlier this year showing the gap is closing.
The Crusaders have the bye in the first week of Super Rugby Aotearoa, allowing them to analyse the first round and be fresh for the second round.
They welcome back veteran Sam Whitelock from his stint in Japan. He will combine with current captain Scott Barrett in a world-class second row. Young forwards Cullen Grace and Tom Christie will benefit playing with an experienced campaigner.
Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor look set to continue their strong midfield pairing that was taking shape pre-lockdown. If the pair make a good showing in this competition, new All Blacks coach Ian Foster will have a ready-made midfield combination. Goodhue has shown his all-round game playing at inside centre with his offloading and left-foot general play kicking. His distribution skills have allowed Ennor to make line breaks and test defences by getting on the outside with his speed.
Highlanders: Play Josh Ioane at first five
Early in the season, the Highlanders persisted to have dual playmakers in their back line with Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane at ten and 12 respectively. This was an attempt to have their best players on the field to play a wide brand of rugby. The combination never really settled.
Coach Aaron Mauger came out two weeks ago and said: “It’s highly likely that Josh won’t be wearing the number 12 jersey” and mentioned that the coaching staff learnt some lessons from the experiment.
Playing Ioane back in the pivot role allows the one-Test All Black to replicate his form that saw him selected for higher honours last year. He is a composed player who has the potential to come of age in this competition. The southern franchise will have a full compliment of midfield backs available, which allows Ioane to stay in the key position.
In Mitch Hunt, they have a classy back-up who will flourish in key moments in the fierce New Zealand derbies. Hunt has shown over time he is the man to call upon in the clutch moments. His current team were on the receiving end of a full-time match-winning drop goal when he was a Crusader in 2017.
For rugby fans in New Zealand (and worldwide), the re-commencement of top-level rugby will be a joyous occasion. Super Rugby Aotearoa is expected to feature high quality play and intense rivalries. With New Zealand Rugby reviewing the Super Rugby model, this competition will be the building block for the future.