Rugby: Not so easy for Chiefs this year

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 tomorrow.

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 and dash.

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 elsewhere.

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 them.

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 Ali Williams.

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 responsibility.

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 track.

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 seasons.

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
Blues
Coach:
Sir John Kirwan (first year)
Captain: Ali Williams
Key forward: Flanker Luke Braid
Key back: Halfback Piri Weepu
Last year: 13th
Prediction: 14th

Chiefs
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
Prediction: Seventh

Hurricanes
Coach
: Mark Hammett (third year)
Captain: Conrad Smith
Key forward: No 8 Victor Vito
Key back: Halfback TJ Perenara
Last year: Eighth
Prediction: Ninth

Crusaders
Coach
: Todd Blackadder (fifth year)
Captain: Kieran Read
Key forward: Flanker Matt Todd
Key back: First five-eighth Dan Carter
Last year: Fourth
Prediction: Fourth