The four other New Zealand sides will all fancy their
chances in the Super 15. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn examines
the teams' prospects. He will look at the Highlanders
There is nothing like that pre-season optimism.
Teams run hard at training - against no opposition. Everyone
greets each other as long-lost friends. Even the bad jokes
are laughed at.
The whole thing just bleeds positivity.
And have a look around the four New Zealand franchises and
there is plenty to be pleased about.
But equally look a tad deeper and that glass can quickly
become half empty.
The Chiefs are a case in point.
They are the defending champions so that must mean something.
They have quality forwards such as Liam Messam, Craig Clarke
and Brodie Retallick.
Aaron Cruden is maturing into one of the best backs in the
entire competition while out wide they have plenty of speed
They have an astute coaching team and plenty of support.
But there are also worries. Sonny Bill Williams is missing
and he can be replaced by no man.
Big prop Ben Tameifuna has eaten too much and is struggling
for fitness while try-scoring prop Sona Taumalolo has gone
Cruden had a blessed run last year with injury and surely
that cannot happen again.
So the Chiefs will be in the hunt but the cards must fall for
Further north there is plenty of buzz coming out of the
Blues. A new coaching team has been assembled and there is
plenty of new enthusiastic talent.
The Blues can field a reasonable starting XV but when
injuries arrive - and they will, they always do - their lack
of depth will be exposed.
They have too many raw players, unproven at this level. The
likes of Marty McKenzie, Bryn Hall and Malakai Fekitoa have
promise but the big question is how much better can they
get?The gap between the domestic competition and the Super 15
is getting bigger each year.
Piri Weepu will be a key, as will Rene Ranger and new skipper
The Hurricanes did better than expected last season and will
want to kick on in 2013.
Much will depend on skipper Conrad Smith and they must fix a
leaky defence. They scored plenty of tries last year but let
too many in.
The loss of Cory Jane due to injury is a big blow and it is
time for Alapati Leiua to step up and shoulder some
Many of their players - Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Brad
Shields - face that difficult second season when everyone
knows who they are, and what they are about.
Many are raving about Ardie Savea but this is a whole new
level compared to playing a dead-tired Otago team on a dry
In red and black country, the onus is on coach Todd
Blackadder. This is his fifth year in charge and he is yet to
win a trophy. It is now or never for him.
The loss of Richie McCaw should not hurt too much as he has
missed large chunks of the Super 15 over the past few
Much depends on Dan Carter. If he is fit and firing, then the
Crusaders will be well in the hunt.
The wing options look thin and big seasons are needed from
Sam Whitelock, Israel Dagg and Ryan Crotty.
With the All Black midfield suddenly looking bare, it is
Crotty's chance to take the next step.
How they look
Sir John Kirwan (first year)
: Ali Williams
: Flanker Luke Braid
: Halfback Piri Weepu
Coach: Dave Rennie (second year)
Captain: Craig Clarke, Liam Messam
Key forward: Hooker Hika Elliot
Key back: First five-eighth Aaron Cruden
Last year: Champion
Coach: Mark Hammett (third year)
Captain: Conrad Smith
Key forward: No 8 Victor Vito
Key back: Halfback TJ Perenara
Last year: Eighth
Coach: Todd Blackadder (fifth year)
Captain: Kieran Read
Key forward: Flanker Matt Todd
Key back: First five-eighth Dan Carter
Last year: Fourth