Rugby: How NZ teams will fare in the Super 15

The experience of Keven Mealamu will be crucial at the Blues.
The experience of Keven Mealamu will be crucial at the Blues.
As the Super 15 winds into action, ODT Online rugby contributor Jeff Cheshire looks at the prospects of the New Zealand teams and reveals his key players from each franchise.

Blues

It seems a long time ago that the Blues were the unbeatable force of Super Rugby. During those glory years they boasted many of the biggest names in rugby and cruised through to two consecutive championships, before being upset for the third.

That success hasn't come so readily since then and other than their memorable championship in 2003, they have been the great under-performers of the competition.

This reached an all time low last year, when they limped to a lowly 12th after being dubbed one of the major contenders early in the season.

But don't write the 2013 Blues off based on that. They have a new coaching staff, a new team and youth in bucketloads which will bring back some of the enthusiasm missing last year.

They will be dangerous in the backs, possessing perhaps more flair and X-factor than any other team in the competition. How well their forward pack competes will determine how far the team goes. Historically this has been the case, when they bring their physical game they are one of the toughest teams to beat in the competition.

Whether they can do this consistently or not is another thing, particularly given the amount of youth and inexperience in the team. It is this that would make the playoffs a fairly optimistic goal for the Blues this year. They are by no means easybeats and are capable of beating any team on their day, but doing this every week in a long campaign is another thing and that may trip them up.

That said, anything could happen if they get their tails up and as their three championships show, they are a franchise who is capable of winning.

Key Player: Keven Mealamu. If the Blues are going to compete this year they need to gain dominance up front in order to get their backs some ball to work with. This all starts with the experienced Mealamu, so strong around the fringes and one of the hardest-working front rowers around. If he brings physicality to the game, the younger players will follow his lead, which will create a very dangerous Blues team.

Youngster to Watch: Charles Piutau. We only saw a glimpse of him towards the end of last year's Super 15, but after a stellar ITM Cup with Auckland Piutau has proven his worth and will be key for the Blues this year. He is one of the most dangerous attacking players going around, capable of coming into the line and wreaking havoc, whilst also cutting a defence to pieces on the counter.

Chiefs

Can Aaron Cruden replicate his stellar form from last year for the Chiefs?
Can Aaron Cruden replicate his stellar form from last year for the Chiefs?
The Chiefs have a tough act to follow, looking to once again reach the dizzying heights of 2012 when they claimed their first championship. This isn't the same team as last year though and it would be slightly optimistic to give them the favourites tag for 2013.

Losing Sonny Bill Williams in the midfield is a huge blow, as his combination with Aaron Cruden and continually improving game gave the Chiefs a weapon that no other team possessed. His offload game was the best in the world, whilst the attention he attracted opened up space for his outsides.

But Williams wasn't the only loss. With Sona Taumalolo having left for Europe they will miss one of their starting front rowers. Ben Tameifuna saw a rapid loss of form in last year's ITM Cup, meaning they could also be without the services he provided them in the 2012 competition.

Add to this the ongoing injury problems of star centre Richard Kahui and it is clear that this is going to be a team missing many of its stars from last year.

They will still be dangerous though, possessing a flair and speed to burn in the backline and a toughness and physicality in the forwards. They will be well-drilled under Dave Rennie on both attack and defence, which will make their line hard to break.

They are certainly a shot at the playoffs, but as was the case with the Blues, don't go basing too much off 2012.

Key Player: Aaron Cruden. The man many believed to be the best player in the last year's competition, Cruden will have a large influence if the Chiefs are to do well. His ability to put his midfielders into gaps is outstanding, taking the ball to the line and drawing defenders to himself before delivering a perfect pass to the man outside him. To go with this his kicking has improved immeasurably and is only an asset to him and his team.

Youngster to Watch: Bundee Aki. After an outstanding ITM Cup in 2012 Bundee Aki gets his chance at Super 15 level. A dangerous runner who fits the mould of a typical Chiefs back perfectly, Aki could be one to spark something especially running off Aaron Cruden. If Richard Kahui becomes plagued by injury once again, Aki will become a key player.

Crusaders

Kieran Read, a key man for the Crusaders, as player and leader.
Kieran Read, a key man for the Crusaders, as player and leader.
As always the Crusaders will enter 2013 as favourites amongst the New Zealand teams and indeed will be right up there in the race for the overall championship. Even without All Black captain Richie McCaw for the majority of the season, this team is class all over the park.

They boast an intimidating tight five, both mobile and physical, who will excel in the open and at set-piece time. Their loose forward trio adds to this and brings a good mixture of players and will only be strengthened by the return of McCaw in the latter stages of the competition.

In Andy Ellis and Dan Carter they have the best nine-ten pairing in the competition, while Israel Dagg has shown us how electrifying he is and will be keen to do this in a red and black jersey.

If there is one question over this team it comes in the midfield. For all the danger Robbie Fruean represents, he also has shown himself to be something of a liability on defence and has a tendency to run across the field on attack, running his wingers out of room. How well he operates could be telling, especially when it comes to giving their dangerous back three the ball in space.

They can be beaten by a team taking the game to them up front, while also being prepared to take a few risks and attack wide.

It would almost be foolish to suggest they won't make the playoffs, having made every top four since 2002 and have only failed to reach this stage of the competition three times.

Expect them to start slow, possibly dropping a couple of games early, but picking up as the competition progresses and being at the top of their game come July.

Key Player: Kieran Read. There was no shortage of players to choose from here, but Read stands out as the key man for his influence on the game as both a player and a leader. Defensively he is brutal and will get through plenty of work, while on attack he is one of the best ball-running loose forwards around with the ball skills to complement this.

Youngster to Watch: Johnny McNicholl. He may lack a yard or two in pace, but McNicholl sure makes up for this with an outstanding skill set and ability to read a game. How much game time he sees this year could depend on how soon Zac Guildford returns to the team, but if Guildford's stay away is lengthy it wouldn't be a surprise to see McNicholl a regular in the starting line up. Watch out for this kid, he's the goods.

Highlanders

The Highlanders will be hoping for big things from marquee signing Ma'a Nonu.
The Highlanders will be hoping for big things from marquee signing Ma'a Nonu.
Every year the Highlanders seem to be amongst the worst hit in the injury department. Look no further than the past two seasons, when they fell off completely after two outstanding starts.

2013 looks to be more of the same, the team having compiled a reasonably lengthy injury list before the season has even started. The loss of Tamati Ellison in the midfield is massive, losing all the experience, flair and ability to cover for other's mistakes that arguably their best player brings.

Add to this injuries that saw Colin Slade, Ben Smith and Brad Thorn amongst others sidelined in the weekend's warm-up game against the Blues and it isn't hard to see they could have some problems.

They will still battle on though and will still bring that same physical style of play that has seen them so successful at times over the past few years. It is this perhaps that has led to their falling off in the latter parts of the last two seasons and may be a contributing factor to the high injury toll, but don't expect that to deter them.

What has been lacking over the past two years has been some flair in the backline, which they now have in 2013 provided they can get the right players on to the park.

Their fitness level will be high as always and will allow them to go past teams in the final 15 minutes, where they won the majority of their games last year. The challenge however will be to keep this ability to finish off for the whole season and not fall off halfway through.

Key Player: Ma'a Nonu. The marquee signing amongst a number of big names for this season, Ma'a Nonu will have a large role in dictating the outcome of the Highlanders season. At his best he is a beast with ball in hand, capable of breaking defences and gaining forward momentum. But he has struggled to bring his best to Super Rugby in recent years, becoming more one-dimensional and far easier for defences to read. If the Highlanders are to compete this year, Nonu needs to leave the form he showed in last year's competition in Auckland.

Youngster to Watch: Fumiaki Tanaka. Maybe not so much a youngster, but as the first Japanese-born player to play Super Rugby, Tanaka will be one to keep an eye on. He impressed for Otago in last year's ITM Cup, showing his ability to clear the ball from the breakdown on the back foot, while also being a dangerous runner and having a good kicking game.

Hurricanes

The complete player? What can Conrad Smith conjure up for the Hurricanes this season?
The complete player? What can Conrad Smith conjure up for the Hurricanes this season?
After a mass exodus of players a year ago, the Hurricanes were written off and proclaimed the weakest New Zealand team prior to the 2012 competition. But after some outstanding performances which saw them nearly steal a playoffs spot, they will enter this season with no such tag.

They have unearthed an abundance of young talent that was able to breakout last year to mix in with the experienced campaigners. Think Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, TJ Perenara, Andre Taylor.

All became legitimate All Black contenders on the back of their performances for the Hurricanes last year and will only continue to get better.

Their tight forwards will need to be on their game, as this could be their weakness that could lead to that dangerous backline getting limited ball to work with. In the loose they should be strong though, possessing a very physical, high working set of looseforwards who will flourish even more should they get to play with a tight five that is on top.

Perhaps a championship may seem a bit optimistic, but they will certainly be in the mix come July and won't be far off a playoff spot if they don't claim one.

Key Player: Conrad Smith. Is there a better back in the world at the moment? Smith has it all and will be crucial for the Hurricanes. Defensively he seems to never miss, on attack he runs hard and takes good options, while as a captain he excels as was shown last year.

Youngster to Watch: Ardie Savea. The younger brother of All Black winger Julian Savea, Ardie Savea is a skilful loose forward and a capable ball runner. His form in the ITM Cup had some mentioning him in All Black circles for the end of year tour, showing the regard he is held in. The main question remains over his size to play at this level, but that can be worked on; for now just keep an eye on one of the most promising players coming through the ranks.