New Zealand Conference Preview - Green and Gold Rugby

New Zealand Conference Preview

New Zealand Conference Preview

Last week dru cast his eye over the South African Conference ahead of their opening matches, so with the Australasian Conferences kicking off this weekend, it’s time to take a look at how things are shaping up East of the ditch.


Carlos Spencer, Blues v Panasonic

Carlos Spencer, Blues v Panasonic

Blues supporters have been saying “this is our year” for so long it’s become a cliche, and success at the recent Brisbane Global 10’s has ensured that this year is no different.

Coach Tana Umaga has at his disposal forwards with skill sets usually seen only from backs, backs who carry and defend like forwards, and of course X-factor players such as Reiko Ioane and Sonny Bill Williams.

The Blues problem, as it has been since Carlos Spencer was in his prime, is finding someone able to provide some game management and direction. This year’s hopes were pinned on Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta, both long tagged for future glory but who have unfortunately ruptured an ACL and broken a hand, respectively. Black is gone for the season and Perofeta for the first four weeks at best.

By the time Perofeta returns the Blues may find themselves in a very deep hole: their campaign begins away to the Highlanders followed by a home game against the Chiefs and trips to the Lions and Stormers.

The mid part of the season contains eight home and just three away games, albeit the home matches include the Highlanders, Hurricanes, and Crusaders. After a final bye in Round 15 the run home includes visits to the Hurricanes and Crusaders, after home matches against the Rebels and Reds.

The Blues may well make the finals for the first time since 2011 but a fourth Super Rugby title (the last of which was in 2003) seems improbable.


McKenzie looks for support when tackled by Carmichael

McKenzie looks for support when tackled by Carmichael

Another rugby cliche is “rebuilding phase” but that’s exactly where the Chiefs find themselves after the departure of coach Dave Rennie and a host of players including their halves combination of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden.

Incoming coach Colin Cooper will be hoping that his new 9/10 axis of Brad Weber and Damien McKenzie can step into the big shoes they’ve been asked to fill, but the key players will be lock Brodie Retallick and openside Sam Cane. Both are world class and possess the “follow me, lads” attitude that could prove inspirational to what is a very green squad.

The Chiefs have copped a tough draw, opening with visits to the Crusaders and Blues, and to the Sunwolves in Round 6. Early home fixtures are the Bulls, Highlanders, and Blues. Away matches to the Hurricanes and Reds see them through to their final bye in Round 11.

The run home features five home games but those are the Jaguares, Waratahs, Crusaders, Brumbies, and Hurricanes. There’s also a trip to Suva to take on the Highlanders. The South Africa trip takes in the Stormers and Sharks.

With that daw and so many new faces, it’s hard to see the Chiefs finishing in the top half of the table.


Ngani Laumape scores with some help

Ngani Laumape scores with some help

The Hurricanes have also lost a raft of players, including Mark Abbott, James Broadhurst, Cory Jane, and Reggie Goodes, but the core of the team that has enjoyed great success in recent years remains.

That includes arguably the best backline in the competition, further strengthened by Jordie Barrett’s return from injury six kilos heavier and targeting his favoured 12 position. Don’t be surprised if wrecking ball Ngani Laumape shifts out to 13 to accommodate Barrett’s freakish skills.

Up front hooker Asafo Aumua and lock/ loose forward Vaea Fifita will be key. Aumua, though, will need to shed some weight and mend some fences after reporting for duty in less than ideal shape and consequently being excluded from the tour party to South Africa (Bulls) and Argentina.

Other than the obligatory trips to the other New Zealand franchises, the remaining away fixture list is pretty friendly, Brumbies obviously excluded, and expected South African heavyweights the Lions and Sharks are both played at home. Avoiding the Waratahs is also a bonus, as is only having to leave New Zealand once after their second bye in Round 10.

In his final campaign before departing for Northampton, coach Chris Boyd should guide his charges into the playoffs. After that anything is possible, including a second title in three years.


keiran read

Defending a Championship is the toughest assignment in any sport but the Crusaders are well placed to add a ninth title to the one they won last year.

First, while there has been the inevitable player turnover the core of the Championship team remains and has arguably been strengthened with the addition of ITM Cup standouts Braydon Ennor and Will Jordan. Both are gifted finishers and in combination with last year’s find-of-the-season Jack Goodhue and midfield rock Ryan Crotty will pose opposition defences plenty of questions.

Second, the draw is very favourable with the opening five matches either at home or a short flight away. A mini-tour to the Lions and Jaguares follows, but by then team rehab (most notably Kieran Read, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, and Owen Franks) should be back and raring to go.

There’s a second seven-match block between their byes, featuring visits to Canberra and Melbourne, both of which have proved troublesome in the past, and to Hamilton which has been something of a bogey venue in recent years. After the June break, home games against the Highlanders and Blues round out the season.

It would be a huge surprise if the Crusaders don’t make the playoffs, but we’ve seen them surrender home ground advantage with poor post-June Test window performances before so they’ll want to build a big points buffer in the early and mid-season Rounds to avoid having to take the longer, harder road to a ninth title. Provided they can do that – and perhaps even if they can’t – back-to-back titles are very much on the cards.


Tahs Scrum

Photo by Keith McInnes

The Highlanders have a new coach in Aaron Mauger who will be looking to build on what Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, both now in Japan, achieved in their collective four years.

The squad is reasonably stable other than the loss of Malakai Fekitoa and a handful of others. The most notable acquisition is Thomas Umaga-Jensen, nephew of Blues coach Tana and a standout player for Wellington in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup.

A potential problem for the Highlanders is that they have byes in Rounds three and eight, meaning a run of eight matches between their last bye and the June International window, and three after it.

Included in that run are visits to the Bulls and Sharks, then hosting the Lions a week after leaving Durban. Their next away fixtures are the Waratahs and Reds, with the Hurricanes at home to follow five days later. Post-June they finish with the Chiefs in Suva, Crusaders away and Rebels at home.

It would be easy to write the Highlanders off but if they can keep something like their best XV on the park every week they could yet make the playoffs, but one suspects that they’ll bow out early.

Fearless predictions:

Blues – qualify then go out in QF.
Chiefs – will not qualify.
Hurricanes – beaten semi-finalists or finalists.
Crusaders – back-to-back Conference and possibly Super Rugby champions.
Highlanders – see Blues.

  • Tomthusiasm

    I can’t pick this conference, the heart says the canes though. As long as he stays fit, Bryn Gatland has a good chance to steer the Blues at first five, he’s had a good year or two performing well against the Lions and with north harbour. The Chiefs could be the darkhorse of this conference, Cooper has done wonders with Taranaki at NPC level and has a lot of key talent from that team on board this year. Canes should go well, I’m excited to see that backline. I also suspect that they’ll ease Aumua into the action, much like they did with Ardie Savea when he first came in the scene. Crusaders are the team to beat, Robinson doesn’t seem like the type of bloke to ease his foot off the gas and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did go back to back. Lastly, the Highlanders. I don’t know much about the new coach but seeing how well Tony Brown did last year make me think that maybe they’ll go alright too, they’re always a puncher’s chance anyway.

  • Kiwi rugby lover

    I’m picking the Canes to win thi, they are after all my team and I’ve followed them though thick and thin so not changing now. I think that overall they are one of the few teams with have the ability to beat the Crusaders. It’s going to be tough though and I think that tana is finally starting to get some gains with the Blues.

    Sooooo looking forward to this weekend.

    • Danny McGowan

      Ok as an avid Canes man, i like their chances of topping the conference, but not betting on it with those bloody Crusaders hanging about!! I think the conference will be decided, but not won by the Clan and Blues, as one of them will knock off either Canes or Saders to make it hard for that team! I will say what a bloody good conference, and am waiting with great expectations!

  • Danny McGowan

    Ok as an avid Canes man, i like their chances of topping the conference, but not betting on it with those bloody Crusaders hanging about!! I think the conference will be decided, but not won by the Clan and Blues, as one of them will knock off either Canes or Saders to make it hard for that team! I will say what a bloody good conference, and am waiting with great expectations.

  • Carlos Fan

    Nice write up.

    I think it is unlikely that 4 nz teams will make the playoffs given the new format. Outside of the conference winners there are only 5 spots available to the next best teams – the nz teams have to play each other 8 times (compared with the other easier conferences playing each other 8 times). NZ will get 3 teams max into playoffs i’d say (Chiefs-Blues-Highlanders to battle it out for the last playoff spot).

    Also I think Thomas Umaga-Jensen is out injured for the season for the Highlanders.

    Very much looking forward to Highlanders-Blues under the roof in Dunedin – bring it on.


a.k.a. Waiopehu Oldboy.

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