The New Zealand Super Rugby conference has waved goodbye to some of the game's biggest stars yet it remains the competition's toughest group. Here we preview the Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes.
Best finish: Champions (96, 97, 03)
Last year: 14th; Fifth in New Zealand
Sir John Kirwan's unflattering three-year reign as Blues coach came to an end in 2015 as the three-time champions slumped to their worst ever finish. Injuries certainly played a part, particularly up front, but the lack of a commanding presence at No.10 was largely to blame for an ineffective attack. Ihaia West, Simon Hickey and Dan Bowden all failed to ignite the Blues backline while the outside backs were often wasteful of what little opportunities came their way.
Squad: Josh Bekhuis, Matt Duffie, Joseph Edwards, Afa Fa'atau, TJ Faiane, Charlie Faumuina, Piers Francis, Blake Gibson, Billy Guyton, Bryn Hall, Akira Ioane, Rieko Ioane, Jerome Kaino, Ben Lam, Tanerau Latimer, Tevita Li, Michael Little, Steven Luatua, Quentin MacDonald, Male Sa'u, Sione Mafileo, Hoani Matenga, Nic Mayhew, Matt McGahan, George Moala, Matt Moulds, Melani Nanai, Sam Nock, James Parsons, Sam Prattley, Kara Pryor, Jack Ram, Rene Ranger, Scott Scrafton, Jordan Trainor, Gerard Tuioti-Mariner, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Lolagi Visinia, Namatahi Waa, Ihaia West.
Fixtures: Highlanders (H), Crusaders (A), Hurricanes (H), Reds (A), BYE, Jaguares (H), Chiefs (A), Sharks (H), BYE, Rebels (H), Kings (A), Lions (A), Force (A), Crusaders (H), Hurricanes (A), Brumbies (H), Waratahs (H)
This year: Former All Blacks skipper Tana Umaga has settled into arguably the toughest job in New Zealand provincial rugby, albeit with a swathe of new faces at his disposal. The Aucklanders have undergone a huge personnel overhaul with Rene Ranger, Tanerau Latimer and former NRL player Matt Duffie some of the noteworthy inclusions. The player to keep an eye on though is young gun Akira Ioane. The back-rower was the star of Junior World Championship but also made a series of big plays in an otherwise horror 2015 Blues season. Umaga certainly has his work cut out but if he can find a suitable solution at No.10 there is enough raw talent elsewhere in the squad for the Blues to climb their way up the table.
Greg Growden says: They have a poor recent Super Rugby record considering the calibre of the players over the past few years, with average leadership and coaching clearly a problem. We will discover whether new coach Tana Umaga is up to it- and it will be a tough first year, as they have lost plenty, including two key up front men- Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu.
Tip: Last in New Zealand
Best finish: Champions (12, 13)
Last year: Quarter-finalists; third in New Zealand.
The Chiefs were hit by the loss of playmaker Aaron Cruden just six rounds into last season and while they still made the finals, a third title in four years always looked beyond them. Still, they were far from disgraced in a playoffs loss to the Highlanders and again showed how adaptable they can be when the conditions don't suit their free-flowing nature. Youngster Damian McKenzie certainly caught the eye while Charlie Ngatai enjoyed a fine season, often in the absence of Sonny Bill Williams.
Squad: Michael Allardice, Johan Bardoul, Dominic Bird, Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden, Stephen Donald, Hika Elliot, Glen Fisiiahi, Siegfried Fisiihoi, Mitchell Graham, Nathan Harris, Andrew Horrell, Mitchell Karpik, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Tevita Koloamatangi, Nepo Laulala, Michael Leitch, Anton Lienert-Brown, James Lowe, Pauliasi Manu, Rhys Marshall, Damian McKenzie, Sam Nicol, Atu Moli, Charlie Ngatai, Augustine Pulu, Toni Pulu, Brodie Retallick, Tom Sanders, Teleni Seu, Shaun Stevenson, Seta Tamanivalu, Chase Tiatia, Siate Tokolahi, James Tucker, Latu Vaeno, Sam Vaka, Maama Vaipulu, Brad Weber, Sonny Bill Williams* (*Unlikely to play).
Fixtures: Crusaders (A), Lions (H), Kings (A), Jaguares (A), Force (H), Brumbies (A), Blues (H), BYE, Hurricanes (A), Sharks (H), Highlanders (H), BYE, Rebels (H), Waratahs (A), Crusaders (H), Reds (A), Highlanders (A)
This year: The Chiefs are another team who look to have recruited well, although that off-season spending spree has been tempered by injuries to fringe All Blacks Dominic Bird and Nepo Laulala. The big question will be how Cruden returns, and whether or not his trademark agility and slight-of-hand are there from the get-go or, like most knee-reconstruction patients, takes some time to come back. There is plenty of class elsewhere in the squad to mount a title charge while the promotion of Sam Cane to co-captain, in a year where the No.7 will replace Richie McCaw as the All Blacks openside, is another shrewd Dave Rennie move.
Greg Growden says: They look one of the most formidable provinces, just as long as Aaron Cruden is not shackled by injury. While they will be missing several good players- the most notable being Sonny Bill Williams who is involved in the Sevens program, their squad still looks formidable as it boasts an abundance of vibrant, young talent. Even though they suffered the pre-season setback of losing imports Nepo Laulala and Dominic Bird, they will still go close to winning it.
Tip: First in New Zealand
Best finish: Champions ((98, 99, 00, 02, 05, 06, 08)
Last year: Seventh; Fourth in New Zealand.
The Crusaders were victims of the conference system last season as they finished sixth in terms of competition points, but missed out on the play-offs because the Stormers had triumphed in South Africa. Still, it felt like a season where the seven-time champions never really quite got going. They had some injuries, and had to manage their All Blacks' mandatory rest weeks, but it was a lack of consistency that told the final tale. Home defeats to the Rebels, Highlanders and Chiefs reflected that difficulty.
Squad: Michael Alaalatoa, Scott Barrett, Tim Boys, Jed Brown, Wyatt Crockett, Ryan Crotty, Israel Dagg, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Dunshea, Andrew Ellis, Sione Fifita, Kieron Fonotia, Owen Franks, Robbie Fruean, Leon Fukofuka, Ben Funnell, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, Alex Hodgman, Mitchell Hunt, Jone Macilai, Marty McKenzie, Johnny McNicholl, Richie Mo'unga, Joe Moody, Nemani Nadolo, Tim Perry, Kieran Read, Ged Robinson, Luke Romano, Pete Samu, Jordan Taufua, Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, Jimmy Tupou, Ben Volavola, Sean Wainui, Sam Whitelock.
Fixtures: Chiefs (H), Blues (H), BYE, Kings (H), Sharks (A), Lions (A), Force (A), Jaguares (H), Brumbies (A), BYE, Reds (H), Highlanders (A), Waratahs (H), Blues (A), Chiefs (A), Rebels (H), Hurricanes (H)
This year: Coach Todd Blackadder has already announced this will be his final season in charge of the red-and-blacks, one he will undertake without a swathe of departed All Blacks. Blackadder's biggest call will be who replaces Dan Carter at No.10, with Ben Volavola, Richie Mo'unga and Marty McKenzie all in the running. Matt Todd is a ready-made replacement for Richie McCaw at No.7, while Kieran Read and Jordan Taufua will complete a powerhouse back-row. Pre-season injuries to Ryan Crotty and Robbie Fruean are a concern, but that will only encourage Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo to go looking for more work - a potentially frightening prospect.
Greg Growden says: Reality time for the long time victors. Numerous All Blacks have gone, in particular Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor. It will difficult to find immediate replacements, but the line-up will still look reasonable, as coach Todd Blackadder has lured some good local players under the resourceful leadership of Keiran Read. It still looks like a rebuilding year.
Tip: Second in New Zealand
Odds: $8.50 (Ubet)
Best finish: Champions (15)
Last year: Champions.
Widely expected to be also-rans for yet another Super Rugby season, the Highlanders defied the apparent lack of top-end talent in their squad to record arguably the greatest Super Rugby triumph in the competition's history. Coach Jamie Joseph used the skills of All Blacks Aaron and Ben Smith superbly, instilling confidence in fly-half Lima Sopoaga, while Waisake Naholo scored some of the most memorable tries of the season. Their triumph would not have been achieved without the collective efforts of a workmanlike pack and Joseph's ability to get the best out of players like Dan Pryor, James Lentjes and Richard "The Barracuda" Buckman. Back-to-back play-off victories on the road in Sydney and Wellington showed just how deserving of the 2015 title they were.
Squad: Alex Ainley, Marty Banks, Richard Buckman, Shane Christie, Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Elliot Dixon, Brendon Edmonds, Jason Emery, Gareth Evans, Malakai Fekitoa, Tom Franklin, Ross Geldenhuys, Josh Hohneck, James Lentjes, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Waisake Naholo, Patrick Osborne, Hayden Parker, Dan Pryor, Mark Reddish, Josh Renton, Liam Squire, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Fumiaki Tanaka, Ryan Tongia, Shaun Treeby, Teihorangi Walden, Joe Wheeler.
Fixtures: Blues (A), Hurricanes (H), Lions (H), Waratahs (A), Rebels (A), Force (H), Reds (A), BYE, Sharks (H), Brumbies (H), Chiefs (A), Crusaders (H), BYE, Hurricanes (A), Kings (A), Jaguares (A)
This year: The Highlanders have had the smallest turnover of players of any New Zealand franchise, reflecting the positivity that success breeds and just how much the players value the "Brotherhood" down south. Joseph's biggest coaching strength is his ability to be adaptable, and instilling that same flexibility in the 23 that take to the field each week. There is no reason to suggest they can't match their feats from last year while the extra home game also holds them in good stead. Joseph's move to Japan - he will take on the Brave Blossoms job at the end of the season - could prove a distraction, meaning the Smiths and new co-captain Shane Christie will need to offer a strong leadership presence.
Greg Growden says: It remains a phenomenal effort that this province won last year's title when they lacked the big names up front. But that's the advantage of great coaching and outstanding team belief. Nothing much has changed this year- and they will again be relying on the resourcefulness of the two Smiths- Ben and Aaron. Still can't see them successfully defending their title.
Tip: Third in New Zealand
Odds: $9 (Ubet)
Best finish: Runners-up (06, 15)
Last year: Runners-up
The Hurricanes appeared to be on the way to a maiden title of their own having dropped just two games in the regular season before dispatching the Brumbies in comprehensive fashion in the semis. But they were outplayed by the Highlanders in the final, denying veterans Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Jeremy Thrush the ultimate parting gift. They had been brilliant throughout the season, playing an up-tempo game that brought the best out of their world-class backline and highlighted the mobility of their pack. The loss of Ardie Savea for the final certainly made a difference, with the No.7 enjoying a breakout season bettered only by team-mate, the supremely talented Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Squad: Mark Abbott, Pita Ahki, Leni Apisai, Vince Aso, Beauden Barrett, Otere Black, James Broadhurst, Dane Coles, Geoffrey Cridge, Chris Eves, Michael Fatialofa, Vaea Fifita, Callum Gibbins, Jamison Gibson-Park, Reggie Goodes, Willis Halahalo, Adam Hill, Iopu Iopu-Aso, Cory Jane, Tony Lamborn, Ngani Laumape, Christian Lloyd, James Marshall, Motu Matu'u, Nehe Milner-Skudder, TJ Perenara, Matt Proctor, Hugh Renton, Hisa Sasagi, Ardie Savea, Julian Savea, Brad Shields, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Blade Thomson, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Loni Uhila, TJ Va'a, Victor Vito, Jason Woodward.
Fixtures: Brumbies (A), Highlanders (A), Blues (A), Force (H), Kings (H), BYE, Jaguares (H), Rebels (A), Chiefs (H), Lions (A), Sharks (A), Reds (H), BYE, Highlanders (H), Blues (H), Waratahs (A), Crusaders (A)
This year: Coach Chris Boyd has certainly waved goodbye to some big names but the good news is that in Dane Coles, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett and Milner-Skudder, the Hurricanes spine largely remains intact. Boyd will have to find a new centre partnership but the players who do fill that pairing will have a simple job - free up space and time for the back three. The departures of Ben Franks and Jeremy Thrush have the potential to create some issues at the set-piece but the success of 2015 should inspire enough confidence within the Hurricanes squad for them to again challenge for what is a tight New Zealand conference.
Greg Growden says: If the Hurricanes were ever going to win the title, it was last year. And they had their chance, finishing on top, but then losing the final to the Highlanders. It will be far tougher this year, as they will be without their Test centre combination Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, along with Ben Franks and Jeremy Thrush. So much will depend on how TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett perform.
Tip: Fourth in New Zealand
Odds: $7 (Ubet)