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Preview: NZ Conference

Fri, 15 Feb 2013 14:08
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Who will take top honours?
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The New Zealand Conference will be the most competitive of the three national Super Rugby Conferences this season.

Blues:

Coach: John Kirwan
Captain: Ali Williams
Stadium: Eden Park
Best finish: Champions (1996, 1997, 2003)

The Blues' best years ended when they last won the championship a decade ago and new coach John Kirwan is not promising an immediate turnaround.

Kirwan is starting from scratch, signing 16 new players - of whom 11 have never played Super Rugby before - while losing two of the Blues’ veteran All Blacks, Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu, who have departed for the Highlanders.

Ali Williams, who has struggled with injury in recent years, has been trusted with the captaincy and the vital role of assisting with the rebuilding of team morale.

Williams, Anthony Boric and Keven Mealamu bring a wealth of international experience to the pack, but in the backs there is a distinct green tinge outside scrumhalf Piri Weepu.

The pivotal flyhalf role is being shared by Chris Noakes and Baden Kerr.

Chiefs:

Coach: Dave Rennie
Co-captains: Craig Clarke, Liam Messam
Stadium: Waikato Stadium
Best finish: Champions (2012)

The one glaring omission in an otherwise stable Chiefs line-up is Sonny Bill Williams, whose exceptional offloads and stout defence will be sorely missed as he returns to Rugby League.

Otherwise, the Chiefs are very much the same line-up that started last year as outsiders, because of a relatively unknown tight five, and ended the season as surprise champions.

Their gains include the return of All Black Richard Kahui, who was sidelined by injury last year, and former Blues pivot Gareth Anscombe.

The Chiefs' strength lies in a tireless work ethic in the forwards, led by co-captains Liam Messam and Craig Clarke, and the play-making skills of scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow.

Another key ingredient is the tactical nous of assistant coach and former All Black mentor Wayne Smith, who produced a backline with flair on attack and a formidable defence.

Crusaders:

Coach: Todd Blackadder
Captain: Kieran Read
Stadium: AMI Stadium
Best finish: Champions (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008)

The best-performing franchise in Super Rugby history again start as the New Zealand team to beat even though they have gone four years without the trophy.

Although they remain stacked with All Blacks, they have been hit hard by Richie McCaw deciding to sit out the season, Ben Franks defecting to the Hurricanes and Zac Guildford standing down to resolve personal issues.

Coach Todd Blackadder made no big-name player signings in the off-season but he did bring in former All Black Aaron Mauger as assistant coach to freshen up their attacking options.

The Crusaders should again be in the play-off mix but their chances of regaining the crown will depend on senior players Dan Carter, Israel Dagg, Sam Whitlock and Kieran Read performing at their best.

Highlanders:

Coach: Jamie Joseph
Captain: Andrew Hore
Stadium: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Best finish: Runners-up (1999)

In the space of two years, no-nonsense coach and former All Black hardman Jamie Joseph has turned the Highlanders into a formidable force.

His success has come from instilling a work-hard ethic coupled with astute recruitment. Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu have joined from the Blues and bruising former All Blacklock Brad Thorn is another new addition.

The problem with the resurgent Highlanders under Joseph is they have self-destructed at the crunch end of the season, but the professionalism of the new trio should boost their chances of making the play-offs for the first time since 2002.

On the downside for the Highlanders, solid midfielder Tamati Ellison has been sidelined by injury.

Hurricanes:

Coach: Mark Hammett
Captain: Conrad Smith
Stadium: Westpac Stadium
Best finish: Runners-up (2006)

Coach Mark Hammett cleared the decks when he took charge in 2011 to produce a relatively new-look side intent on playing an entertaining, high-risk, game.

Last year they finished eighth, scoring more tries and points than any other team, but in terms of possession, territory and tries conceded they were well down the list.

Their strength lies in the flair of Conrad Smith, Julian Savea and Andre Taylor. Their forwards have been bolstered by the recruitment of Ben Franks to steel the front row but they have lost ace try-scorer Cory Jane to injury.

Rival teams will have a better understanding of what makes the Hurricanes tick and their challenge is to again produce a successful counter-attack ethos while shoring up their defences.

AFP

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