Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks-off in late February and thanks to superrugby.co.nz we take a look at how each team is shaping up…
CRUSADERS [2020 Winners]
Stability is the cornerstone of success in any enterprise and that has been the common denominator in Crusaders success through the years. The 2021 campaign, the fourth in which the Christchurch-based franchise has gone into as defending champion, promises to be no different.
New faces are confined to front-rowers New Zealand's under-19 age-grade player of the year in 2019 Fletcher Newell and Maori All Black rookie Tamaiti Williams and outside backs Chay Fihaki and Isaiah Punivai, each products of the Crusaders Academy.
Overcoming the continuity and experience contained in the side is the challenge for all opponents. There is strength through the squad. But typifying the strength, and therefore internal competition for starts is the lock position. Few sides could match the experience provided by Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Luke Romano, Quinten Strange and Mitchell Dunshea, each of whom has had time in the All Blacks environment.
Throw in All Blacks' front-rowers Codie Taylor and Joe Moody, along with the experienced Michael Alaalatoa and Ollie Jager and the depth of resource is obvious.
The loose forwards have reduced with injury to the luckless Tom Sanders ahead of the competition but with Tom Christie, Cullen Grace, Ethan Blackadder, Whetukamokamo Douglas and Sione Havili, there will be no let-up in that department.
Continuity is also a feature of the backline where Mitch Drummond, Ere Enari and Bryn Hall contest the halfback starts. Richie Mo'unga and Brett Cameron continue at first five-eighths while midfield, in the initial absence of Braydon Ennor due to injury, is possibly the only area where the experience stats don't match the heights in other positions.
However, such is the versatility in the side that options are available in the outside backs to supplement Jack Goodhue, Fergus Burke and Dallas McLeod. David Havili can play anywhere in the backline while there is also utility value in George Bridge and Will Jordan between wing and fullback while Leicester Faingaanuku, Fihaki, Manasa Mataele, Sevu Reece and Punivai are left to contend the wing starts.
Forwards: Codie Taylor, Andrew Makalio, Brodie McAlister, Joe Moody, Michael Alaalatoa, George Bower, Oliver Jager, Tamaiti Williams, Isi Tu’ungafasi, Fletcher Newell, Scott Barrett (captain), Sam Whitelock, Mitchell Dunshea, Quinten Strange, Luke Romano, Cullen Grace, Tom Christie, Ethan Blackadder, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Sione Havili, Tom Sanders
Backs: Bryn Hall, Mitchell Drummond, Ere Enari, Richie Mo’unga, Brett Cameron, Fergus Burke, Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor, Dallas McLeod, Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, George Bridge, David Havili, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Manasa Mataele, Chay Fihaki, Isaiah Puniva
Crusaders - the team to beat again in 2021?
HURRICANES [3rd in 2020]
With a new skipper at the helm and game-breaking talent stacked throughout the squad, the Hurricanes will be looking to go all the way in Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021.
While the Crusaders and Blues received all the headlines and plaudits in 2020, it cannot be forgotten that the Hurricanes defeated both teams during the season - including a rare victory over the eventual champions in Christchurch and a last gasp win over the Blues at Sky Stadium.
The Hurricanes have named a largely settled squad for 2021 and will be aiming for a strong start to the season in their pursuit of a spot in the first ever Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa final. In 2020 they dropped their first two games. They ended the season in third place with five wins from eight matches. A stronger start to the season would have seen them in the title race alongside the Blues and Crusaders.
The Hurricanes have recruited well in 2021. The return of Julian Savea and arrival of former Blues flyer Lolagi Visinia out wide has countered the departure of prolific try-scorer Ben Lam.
Halfback and first five are areas of obvious concern for the Hurricanes with TJ Perenara taking a sabbatical in Japan this season and Beauden Barrett’s departure in 2019 still leaving a gaping hole in the 10 jersey.
It looks like Jackson Garden-Bachop back in the squad in 2021 will have first crack at five-eighth. The nine jersey is up for grabs this season with impressive Bay of Plenty halfback Luke Campbell joining the squad for the first time this year. He will battle it out for a place in the match-day 23 with the experienced Jamie Booth and live-wire Jonathan Taumateine.
Traditionally the Hurricanes Achilles hell, the front row is looking incredible strong this year with Alex Fidow, Tyrel Lomax and Tevita Mafileo all exciting prospects at prop and Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli and Asafo Aumua providing three international class options at hooker.
When adding in world class talent like Jordie Barrett at fullback, Ngani Laumape in the midfield and new captain Ardie Savea in the loose forwards, there is no doubting the Hurricanes have the potential to go all the way in 2021.
Forwards: Pouri Rakete-Stones, Alex Fidow, Xavier Numia, Tyrel Lomax, Fraser Armstrong, Tevita Mafileo, Ricky Riccitelli, Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Liam Mitchell, James Blackwell, Scott Scrafton, Kane Leaupepe, Isaia Walker Leaware, Du Plessis Kirifi, Reed Prinsep, Gareth Evans, Ardie Savea, Devan Flanders, Vaea Fifita, Brayden Iose
Backs: Jamie Booth, Jonathan Taumateine, Luke Campbell, Jackson Garden Bachop, Simon Hickey, Ngani Laumape, Billy Proctor, Vince Aso, Julian Savea, Salesi Rayasi, Wes Goosen, Jordie Barrett, Danny Toala, Peter Umaga Jensen, Lolagi Visinia, Ruben Love, Pepesana Patafilo
CHIEFS [5th in 2020]
It would be fair to say last season didn’t go to plan for the Hamilton-based club. They started the regular Super Rugby season with a hiss and a roar, beating the Blues and Crusaders in consecutive weeks. They found themselves in fifth place on the overall ladder with four wins from six games. But then came lockdown.
The Chiefs surprisingly struggled throughout Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa and were winless in the eight-game competition.
This will motivate them in 2021. Clayton McMillan has come on as interim head coach, while Warren Gatland joins the British and Irish Lions in the Northern Hemisphere, and they’ve recruited well. McMillan has called upon a few of his young and exciting Māori All Blacks contingent in the form of Jonah Lowe and Rameka Poihipi, while Bryn Gatland joins the squad from the Highlanders.
The Chiefs also have some impressive young talent in the mix. Ollie Norris, Kaylum Boshier, Xavier Roe, Rivez Reihana and Simon Parker have all recently played for either the New Zealand Under 20s or New Zealand Schools.
They also welcome back some key All Blacks experience, with front rowers Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao returning from injury, as well as flanker Luke Jacobson.
The Chiefs had a good start to pre-season, coming away with two wins against the Hurricanes and Blues in the game of three halves at Maidstone Park in Upper Hutt.
Through the leadership of Sam Cane, the country’s best player in 2020, the Chiefs will look to put last season well and truly behind them and build towards a much-improved campaign in 2021.
Forwards: Nathan Harris, Bradley Slater, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Sione Mafileo, Atunaisa Moli, Ollie Norris, Reuben O’Neill, Aidan Ross, Angus Ta’avao, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Josh Lord, Laghlan McWhannell, Tupou Vaa’i, Kaylum Boshier, Lachlan Bosher, Mitchell Brown, Sam Cane ©, Pita Gus Sowakula, Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Karpik, Simon Parker
Backs: Xavier Roe, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Brad Weber, Bryn Gatland, Rivez Reihana, Kaleb Trask, Anton Lienert-Brown, Alex Nankivell, Bailyn Sullivan, Rameka Poihipi, Quinn Tupaea, Jonah Lowe, Damian McKenzie, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Shaun Stevenson, Chase Tiatia, Sean Wainui
BLUES [2nd in 2020]
More than any of their rivals, the biggest problem the Blues are likely to face in Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa this year is not knowing when their plans can be disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Recent events have shown the need to 'go fast and go early' as lockdown can upset even the best-laid plans.
Putting that to the back of their thinking will be the test for the Blues but having Patrick Tuipulotu at the helm of a strong leadership group will ensure the Blues have the mental toughness to overcome any challenges thrown their way – on or off the field.
Having made significant progress in 2020, despite the loss of so much time, the Blues will be looking to build on that as they head into coach Leon MacDonald's third year at the helm.
He will have a strong pack to call on with tighthead prop Nepo Laulala's addition among the front row options a big boost for the side.
Extended competition is assured in the loose forwards where Dillon Hunt has returned home from Dunedin to go head-to-head with Blake Gibson, Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson, Taine Plumtree, Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu.
One area where the Blues have never lacked excitement is in the backline and that has only been boosted with the additions of Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens from Taranaki and Zarn Sullivan from Auckland.
Competition for places is assured throughout the backline and that will be a welcome headache for the team management.
Forwards: Ray Niuia (Tasman), Kurt Eklund (Bay of Plenty), Soane Vikena (Auckland), Alex Hodgman (Auckland), Nepo Laulala (Counties Manukau), James Lay (Auckland), Marcel Renata (Auckland), Karl Tu’inukuafe (North Harbour), Ofa Tuungafasi (Auckland), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti (North Harbour), Sam Darry (Canterbury), Josh Goodhue (Northland), Jacob Pierce (North Harbour), Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), Blake Gibson (Auckland), Dillon Hunt (North Harbour), Akira Ioane (Auckland), Dalton Papalii (Counties Manukau), Taine Plumtree (Wellington), Tom Robinson (Northland), Hoskins Sotutu (Auckland).
Backs: Finlay Christie (Tasman), Sam Nock (Northland), Jonathan Ruru (Auckland), Otere Black (Bay of Plenty), Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki), Harry Plummer (Auckland), TJ Faiane (Auckland), Rieko Ioane (Auckland), Tanielu Tele’a (Auckland), Caleb Clarke (Auckland), AJ Lam (Auckland), Jone Macilai-Tori (Northland), Emoni Narawa (Bay of Plenty), Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens (Taranaki), Zarn Sullivan (Auckland), Mark Telea (Tasman).
Nehe Milner-Skudder on the Super Rugby comeback trail with the Highlanders
HIGHLANDERS [4TH in 2020]
Defying the odds is part of the Highlanders' DNA but new head coach Tony Brown will add innovation to the mix as the southerners prepare to take on the rest of the country.
It is almost common for Highlanders players to acknowledge underdog status at the start of each new season but putting a comparable lack of depth in resources behind them, and a reasonable run with injuries, they remain a tough nut to crack.
Useful acquisitions have been made supplement that experience with dangerous outside back Solomon Alaimalo joining from the Chiefs while flanker Billy Harmon and utility back Fetuli Paea have headed south from the Crusaders seeking more opportunities.
There is a solid core to the pack with Liam Coltman and Ash Dixon to hook and Josh Hohneck, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siate Tokolahi well versed in Super Rugby while Ayden Johnstone will be back once concussion protocols are completed.
Former All Black lock Bryn Evans is back after a decade overseas, notably with 74 games for London Irish and 102 for Sale, to provide some experience at lock where Josh Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson and Maanaki Selby-Ricket return.
Options aplenty are available in the loose with Harmon joining Shannon Frizell, Liam Squire, James Lentjes, Marino Mikaele Tu'u, Teariki Ben-Nicholas and Sione Misiloi.
One of the big movers from last year's Mitre 10 Cup was halfback Folau Fakatava and with All Black Aaron Smith back on board with Kayne Hammington and the introduction of Kazuki Himeno from Japan, there will be plenty of interest in the position.
Brown's influence should be seen in his former position of first five-eighths where Josh Ioane and Mitchell Hunt are the playmakers.
Excitement aplenty is on offer in the remainder of the backline where Nehe Milner-Skudder has the chance to make a comeback at the top level after years of injury woes. But alongside the likes of Vilimoni Koroi, Jona Nareki, Scott Gregory, Connor Garden Bachop and the emerging Sam Gilbert, there is the potential for fireworks aplenty.
Providing the solidity and nous will be Sio Tomkinson, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Michael Collins and Alaimalo.
Forwards: Daniel Lienert-Brown, Jeff Thwaites, Ayden Johnstone, Ethan De Groot, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Hohneck, Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ricky Jackson, Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Bryn Evans, Shannon Frizell, Sione Misiloi, James Lentjes, Billy Harmon, Kazuki Himeno, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Teariki Ben- Nicholas, Liam Squire.
Backs: Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Folau Fakatava, Josh Ioane, Mitchell Hunt, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Patelesio Tomkinson, Michael Collins, Fetuli Paea, Scott Gregory, Jona Nareki, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Vilimoni Koroi, Solomon Alaimalo, Sam Gilbert, Connor Garden-Bachop, Ngatungane Punivai.