Super Rugby is nearly here, folks!
Super Rugby AU kicks off Friday night, followed by Super Rugby Aotearoa the following weekend.
After the excellent in-depth article by jeznez a few weeks back previewing the Super Rugby AU squads I have been inspired to put a similar microscope on the Super Rugby Aotearoa squads.
My method is to list the entire squad and break them down into the following segments: prop, hooker, lock, loose forward, halfback, first five, midfield, outside back and coaches. Each team was objectively ranked solely based on their personnel, which ended up as an overall team ranking.
Strengths: prop, loose forward (1)
The props are headlined by All Blacks Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala, Karl Tuínukuafe and Ofa Tu’ungafasi and supported by James Ley and Marcel Renata. This squad should be solid in the scrums, injuries permitting. The loose forward department is also stacked, as led by Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papali’i and Akira Ioane, while the hardworking Tom Robinson, Blake Gibson and Dillon Hunt accompany newbie Taine Plumtree from Wellington.
Weaknesses: hooker (5)
Following the injury-enforced retirement of former All Black James Parsons, the Blues have been left pretty bare in the hooking stakes, with Ray Niuia and Soane Vikena joined by last year’s impressive addition Kurt Ekland, who was unlucky not to get signed in the first place, but with Parsons’s injury has a chance to push his claim for the full-time No. 2 jersey.
Overall ranking: second.
Strengths: halfback (2)
Sadly I couldn’t find any category in which the Chiefs ranked No. 1. Halfback is their strongest suit, with the bubbly Brad Weber as the top dog and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi a solid performer while also being a menace for commentators with below-par pronunciation. Rookie Xavier Roe is a real shooting star for the Chiefs too. He had a really good season for Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup and there is growing hype around his prospects.
Weaknesses: lock, coaches (5)
It always feels a bit harsh ranking a team lower than the others, but behind 2020 All Black Tupou Vaa’i and the promising Naitoa Ah Kuoi there’s a couple of untested lads: Josh Lord, Laghlan Whannell and ‘Mr Fix-it’ Mitchell Brown, who often covers loose forward and lock. Following Warren Gatland bolting off to coach the British and Irish Lions on a tour that probably won’t happen, New Zealand Maori coach Clayton McMillan has to pick up the pieces and try to lead a Chiefs revival this year.
Overall ranking: fifth.
Strengths: hooker, midfield (1)
The hooking department is being manned by Dane Coles, Asafo Aumua and Ricky Riccitelli. Nuff said. The Canes also have Super Rugby’s form midfield back of the last few years, Ngani Laumape, and he is teamed up with last year’s boom sensation, Peter Umaga-Jensen, who is in the frame for higher honours.
Weaknesses: halfback, first five
A year on from losing Beauden Barrett from the No. 10 jersey the Hurricanes are left further reeling as captain TJ Perenara has also decided to play in Japan for a season. At least TJ will be back, though. For now the halfbacks in yellow will be Bay of Plenty’s Luke Campbell and Counties’ Jonathan Taumateine, as expected starter Jamie Booth is injured. Outside them at No. 10 will be the so-so Jackson Garden-Bachop and/or Simon Hickey, who has returned from a number of years overseas. Bottom line is I don’t like their chances.
Overall ranking: third.
Strengths: lock, first five, outside back, coaches (1)
The Crusaders rule the roost in the highest number of categories, which probably explains why they are the team to beat. Well, that and the fact they’ve been champs four years straight.
At lock you’ve got Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Luke Romano, Quintin Strange and Mitchell Dunshea – excellent quality and depth. Richie Mo’unga leads the first fives, with Brett Cameron and Fergus Burke. The outside backs are super-duper stacked with George Bridge, David Havili, Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Manasa Mataele, Leicester Fainga’anuku and others, plus the visionary coach Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson has taken this team to new heights. He’s probably choreographing his next championship breakdance already.
Weaknesses: midfield (4)
The injury to Brayden Ennor means that All Black Jack Goodhue is paired with Dallas McLeod as the only accomplished midfield backs. Though one has a sneaky suspicion that a guy like David Havili or even Sevu Reece could be bumped in to bolster the mids. Either way, it’s looking a little thin.
Overall ranking: first.
All Blacks spark plug Aaron Smith is backed up by the form halfback of the 2020 New Zealand domestic scene, Folau Fakatava, and the always solid Kayne Hammington. It will be interesting to see what sort minutes coach Tony Brown is able to work between Smith and Fakatava.
Weaknesses: prop, loose forward, midfield, outside back (5)
The Highlanders props are solid performers who aren’t mistaken for world-beaters. There’s a tonne of quality in the loose forwards with Shannon Frizzell, a returning Liam Squire, Marino Mikaele Tu’u, who wasn’t far off All Blacks calculations, and the hardworking James Lentjes. That all just shows how good the depth is across New Zealand teams.
There are question marks over the midfield and outside backs too, as many spots are up in the air. Chiefs recruits Solomon Alaimalo should slot in at fullback or on the wing depending on how they use Mitch Hunt, while winger Jona Nareki will look to improve from his promising rookie season. I would love to see All Blacks sevens star Vilimoni Koroi get a chance too.
Overall ranking: fourth.
These rankings are based only on where things currently stand and are open to change over the season as new stars, injuries, form, suspensions, coaching, luck, weather, COVID and any other number of factors may come in to play. Wow – I just realised I’ve thrown a disclaimer in this article. Oh well.
Overall, it was good to take a look under the bonnet to find out what makes these squads tick, even though the results came out fairly predictably with the Crusaders on top.
How will the new season pan out on the field? I guess we’ll have to watch to find out. So, whip up some onion dip and get the L&P ready, because Super Rugby is coming.