New season but no script changeSave
By Patrick McKendry, Gregor Paul
1. Are you expecting the New Zealand sides to dominate in the same way they did last year?
GP: Probably, but maybe not quite to the same extent when it comes to final positions on the table. An improved Blues side may increase the cannibalisation within the New Zealand Conference. It could end up that with the New Zealand teams dominating the South Africans and Australians, but also taking too many points off one another for four teams to make the playoffs as happened last year.
PM: Yes, and from the start. Other teams hoping to catch Kiwi teams out early might have looked at the quality of players named for their team's final pre-season hit-outs recently - including Ben Smith and Aaron Smith for the Highlanders and Israel Dagg for the Crusaders - with a sense of disquiet. The Lions are coming in June, but many of the All Blacks appear eager to impress from round one of the Super Rugby season. Last year four New Zealand teams made the top eight; with the squad the Blues have named, Tana Umaga's men could make it this season, too.
2. Is there any New Zealand player that you think will emerge as a potential surprise All Black candidate before June?
GP: Hard to see that happening. The All Blacks cast their net fairly wide last year " discovering the likes of Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane and Scott Barrett. Might not be a case of finding a new star, but instead gaining confirmation that players such as Damian McKenzie, Nepo Laulala and Lima Sopoaga are all going to be good longer-term test prospects.
PM: The All Blacks' depth and succession planning is such that it's unlikely there will be a surprise as such, but Jordie Barrett has the potential to take the competition by storm for the Hurricanes. Barrett, an "apprentice" on last year's All Blacks northern tour, has a fair bit of physical development to come, but the 1.96m tall 19-year-old, who can play in the midfield or at fullback, has the ability to create time and space and has a big future. Barrett caught the eye for the Hurricanes in their helter-skelter pre-season victory over the Blues. Like his brother Beauden he's often a calming presence amid chaos.
3. Who of the established All Blacks do you think has most to prove?
GP: Sonny Bill Williams was starting to play consistently well at the end of 2015, then he headed to sevens and injured himself. Can he return to being the player he was and can he budge Ryan Crotty from the All Blacks No12 shirt? There's an expectation, as part of the All Blacks leadership group, that he will deliver some commanding performances.
PM: Aaron Smith will be on a rebuilding mission after the wheels fell off for him last year. Starting the year as the world's best, he struggled to hold his position against the likes of TJ Perenara and will seek to re-find his form at the Highlanders. The key for him is not to try to do too much, a message Steve Hansen will no doubt be sending. Smith's quickness of pass and foot are key launching pads for the All Blacks. Conversely, when he's off his game, it's obvious to just about everyone.
4. Will the likes of the Sunwolves, Force, Jaguares and Kings be any better this time around?
GP: The Jaguares, given they have a reasonable number if good players in their squad, should be a better side for the experience of last year. As for the rest of them; forget it. They will most likely be worse and, with the Sunwolves having to play New Zealand teams this year, someone might crack the century.
PM: The Jaguares might improve because they showed a bit of ability, albeit inconsistently, last year. The Sunwolves, though, are dog tucker, and, while they were protected to some extent last year given they didn't play a New Zealand team, that doesn't apply this time. The Kings won two of 15 matches last year - I'd expect a similar result this time. The Force won only two as well, and the calls to get rid of the Perth-based team will echo louder if they put in a similar performance. Logic would dictate the latter three teams are cut from the competition as soon as possible, but unfortunately that's unlikely to happen due to Sanzaar's determination to "expand markets" (read: financial streams).
5. Do you have a dark horse team that you think might surprise?
GP: Keep an eye on the Reds. They have bought Quade Cooper and Stephen Moore and, while the former may not be a test sensation, he's got the ability to have some impact at this level. Moore should give them a harder edge and the ability to stay in games they might have previously lost.
PM: The Jaguares, hopefully, because they underperformed last year. The Argentines also have a game plan which at times is crazily over-ambitious, but which makes them one of the more entertaining teams to watch for the casual viewer. Their ill-discipline often lets them down, and they should have done better at home given the challenges playing in Buenos Aires can often present travelling teams, but the flipside is that their travel schedule is often horrendous.
6. Which team is going to be crowned champions and why?
GP: Chiefs. They still look to have the most depth in their squad, real grunt in their pack and ability at the set-piece. They have ball carrier, two great play-makers in Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie and some finishing power out wide. They will also be determined to send off coach Dave Rennie as a champion and try to restore their image as a champion team after last year's off-field dramas.
PM: The Highlanders. There's plenty to like - a squad which includes Waisake Naholo, Lima Sopoaga and the two Smiths, a unique closeness among the players which means they are never out of matches no matter the deficit they may face, and a helter-skelter game-plan that suits them perfectly. I also like the innovations Tony Brown brings to his backline.