2018 Super Rugby Preview: New Zealand Conference

The 2018 Super Rugby season officially kicked off last weekend with a South African conference-only round to whet the appetite. But the full platter is served up this weekend when the Australian and New Zealand conferences join the party, and plenty of nervous eyes will be looking across the Tasman to see if the kiwis are looking as ominous as ever. Even by their high standards 2017 was something of a ground breaker, with four of the five franchises playing finals footy (the Blues would have made it as well if the top eight came down purely to points tallies, rather than any pre-determined geographical qualification), and their 26-0 record against the Australian sides was as impressive on that side of the ditch as it was embarrassing on this. But with the Rugby World Cup just over 18 months away, any signs of a backwards step this year from a bevy of All Black hopefuls is probably wishful thinking.

Who’s in, who’s out, who’s in charge and who’s going to make the finals? Behind the Ruck puts all sensibility aside to try and separate the wheat from the chaff, and throw some names up in the air that may just be worth keeping an eye on. Teams are reviewed in their finishing order from 2017.

 

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CRUSADERS
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It seems churlish to accuse a side with seven Super Rugby titles in 22 years of the competition, of under-achievement. But given that their last success came under a pre-Wallaby Robbie Deans in 2008, the pressure was mounting at the Crusaders for somebody to guide them back to the top of the mountain from where they had once looked down upon everyone else on an annual basis. Club legend Todd Blackadder gave it his best shot, taking over the coaching reins from Deans after his playing retirement and leading his charges to two finals, four semi-finals and one quarter-final in his eight years at the helm. There’s a lot of teams would give their right arms for that kind of consistent ‘success’ but for the Crusaders, it’s titles or bust. So in came Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson. Another ex-player who bleeds red and black, and who arrived off the back of two ITM Cup wins in three years with Canterbury, and with plenty of insight into the club’s next generation as a result.

The self-confessed ‘quirky’ character who spends his downtime surfing struck just the right chord with the playing group, and the culture they fostered in the off-season was apparent through the early rounds, as they came from behind to win three times in their first four games. They kicked on to remain unbeaten until the last game of the regular season, when they finally fell to the Hurricanes. But there was no stopping them this time, their combination of forward control and backline execution taking them to further wins over the Highlanders, Chiefs and finally the Lions in Johannesburg, bringing the title back to Christchurch, and allowing Robertson to celebrate in his traditional and inimitable style. (see below)

So, in his sophomore season – and with the added intellectual property of ex-British & Irish Lions flyhalf Ronan O’Gara by his side in the coaches box – the question may be as simple as ‘Who can stop them doing the same again?’ Or, will that ‘difficult second album’ syndrome strike instead? Injuries to Kieran Read, Israel Dagg, Owen Franks and Joe Moody may hamper the first quarter of the title defence, but with 18 All Blacks now on their books and the confident glow of last year’s achievement still flushing their cheeks, whoever finishes above them is going to have to be bloody good.

Scott Robertson_Crusaders breakdance_2017

Will coach Scott Robertson be busting out some more shapes by season’s end

NOTABLE IN’S: Ethan Blackadder (Tasman), Mike Delany (Bay of Plenty), Braydon Ennor (Canterbury), Billy Harmon (Canterbury), Will Jordan (Tasman), Tom Sanders (Chiefs), Jack Stratton (Canterbury)

NOTABLE OUT’S: Jed Brown (Canterbury), Whetu Douglas (Benetton, Italy), Digby Ioane (Panasonic Wild Knights, Japan), Marty McKenzie (Chiefs)

KEY PERFORMERS: Being fourth out of five in the pecking order for a start in your national jersey doesn’t sound too flattering, but when you consider that Richie Mo’unga was sitting behind Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga, context has to come into play. And the 23-year-old’s performances last season in guiding the ‘Saders to the title, and the departure of Cruden to France, leaves the door open for him to push his case as the next cab off the rank behind Barrett; When Seta Tamanivalu chose to move to the South Island from the Chiefs in the 2016/17 off-season, some people may have questioned whether he was simply moving sideways instead of forwards in his career. 10 tries in 15 games, and a Super Rugby title later, that decision has been vindicated. He heads to France at the end of the year, expect him to try and go out with a bang.

ONES TO WATCH OUT FOR: It was the Crusaders as a team that so impressed last year, all the cogs and wheels working seamlessly together to create an unbeatable force. But there were so many individual performers to admire as well, and two with very bright futures ahead of them are centre Jack Goodhue and winger George Bridge. Both just 22-years-old, they took to Super Rugby like ducks to water, Bridge crossing for eight tries in total and Goodhue impressing enough to get a run with the All Blacks in an uncapped match against a French XV in November. They will be hard to stop and fun to watch.

DRAW: A couple of rippers at home to start with as they host the Chiefs and the Stormers, but if they come through that unscathed, trips to Wellington, Dunedin, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires in the next five weeks may test their chances of building another unbeaten run. Their fixtures in the month after their first bye in round nine look favourable, and then it’s five NZ derbies to close out the year, which will probably prove decisive. They also benefit from the bye week after the conclusion of the All Blacks v France test series in June, which could be vital in resting battered and bruised bodies.

 

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HURRICANES

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When Chris Boyd stepped into the hot seat at the Hurricanes in mid-2014, the Wellington-based outfit seemed further away than ever from that elusive maiden Super Rugby title. In the previous five years they had finished 8th, 9th, 8th, 11th and 7th, a far cry from their regular appearances in the finals in the mid-to late 2000’s, and were in need of a major overhaul. Now about to enter his fourth – and final – campaign in charge, Boyd has amassed a phenomenal 80.4% win ratio from the 46 matches he has overseen, lifting that sought-after first title in 2016 after finishing runners-up the year before, and only bowing out at the semi-final stage last year to eventual champions, the Lions.

But it’s not just the results that Boyd and the equally adept coaching team he has put together must take great credit for, it is the manner in which the Hurricanes play the game – the pace, power, handling skills, offloads, sizzling counter attacks and scintillating tries – that will perhaps be his greatest legacy when he moves on to Northampton Saints in the English Premiership at season’s end. They averaged six and a half tries per game last year, and in the explosive Ngani Laumape and speed merchant Vince Aso, they had the two finest finishers in the competition, with 29 meat pies between them. Then there’s the Barrett brothers. Beauden’s exquisite talents were already well established but Jordie brought just as many tricks to the table last year and provided a double headache for opposition defences. And don’t forget the Savea boys of course, or TJ Perenara, or Dane Coles, or Nehe Milner-Skudder or…you get the picture.

So the only surprise was that such an array of talents did fall short in the final four in 2017, when they blasted out to a healthy first half lead in Johannesburg, only to be reeled in by a combination of air travel, high altitude, and a pride of hungry Lions. In trying to rectify that ‘failure’ this time round, long-term injuries to skipper Coles (June) and Milner-Skudder (May) certainly aren’t helpful. But with Barrett Junior, Laumape, Aso, Wes Goosen, Vaea Fifita and others still to come of age in the professional arena, and the perhaps unspoken desire within the group to send their super-coach out on a high, they loom as the Crusaders’ biggest challengers for supremacy in this conference, and will surely accrue enough points either way to reach the play-offs and get another shot at glory.

Ngani Laumape_Hurricanes_2017

Ngani Laumape was a revelation last season, finishing top try scorer in the competition with 15

NOTABLE IN’S: Asafo Aumua (Wellington), Finlay Christie (Chiefs), Murray Douglas (Rebels), Gareth Evans (Highlanders), Alex Fidow (Wellington), Jackson Garden-Bachop (Rebels), Toby Smith (Rebels), Ihaia West (Blues)

NOTABLE OUT’S: Mark Abbott (Coca-Cola Red Sparks, Japan), Pita Ahki (Connacht, Ireland), Leni Apisai (Blues), Otere Black (Blues), James Broadhurst (retired), Callum Gibbins (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Reggie Goodes (retired), Toa Halafihi (Lyon, France), Cory Jane (Toshiba Brave Lupus, Japan), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Chiefs), Loni Uhila (Clermont Auvergne, France)

KEY PERFORMERS: You can’t look much further than Beauden Barrett when you talk about consistent world-class performers. His ability to control and dictate proceedings through hands or feet is unmatched in the modern game, and his vision, searing pace and inventive rugby brain doesn’t just allow the Hurricanes to function, it makes them positively purr; He doesn’t get his name up in lights as much as all the superstars around him but for sheer regularity of unfussy performances, Brad Shields must be a coaches dream. Although, perhaps not the All Blacks coaches, as New Zealand’s loss may well be England’s gain when he heads to England at the end of Super Rugby, to take up a contract with Wasps and play in the birthplace of his parents.

ONES TO WATCH OUT FOR: There were glimpses of the talent lying within, but I think it’s fair to say that Sam Lousi didn’t exactly set the world alight when he spent a couple of years with the Waratahs in 2015-16. His stint in the NRC with the NSW Country Eagles offered more reasons for optimism that this former leaugie might have what it takes, but it was his graduation to the starting XV for the Hurricanes last year that really made people stand up and take notice, as he began to truly realise his potential; He’ll have enough to do just to get on the field given the level of competition in the wing spots, but having eventually usurped veteran Cory Jane, the door is now open for Wes Goosen to kick on and go to the next level.

DRAW: A tricky but far from insurmountable opening with away days in Pretoria (Bulls) and Buenos Aires (Jaguares) to navigate, before a seismic early derby against the Crusaders. Even though that will only be round three, this game could go a long way towards deciding top spot down the track. Ten of their last 11 matches are in New Zealand – five at the Cake Tin, including the Lions and Sharks – and they avoid the Stormers and Waratahs in the regular season. Points aplenty in there.

 

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CHIEFS
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All good things must come to an end, and the departures of Chiefs coaching royalty in Dave Rennie (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland) and Kieran Keane (Connacht, Ireland) to northern climes at the end of last season, brought to a close the most successful period in the Hamilton-based side’s Super Rugby history. Since Rennie took control in 2012 they have enjoyed six successive years of finals football, topped off by back-to-back titles in 2012-13. They have produced some of the most eye-catching rugby in the process, and for most of last season, they looked like they had the team to do it again, only to fall to the all-conquering Crusaders in the semi-final.

The landscape around Chiefs HQ has altered dramatically since that season-ending defeat, and they have witnessed possibly the biggest overhaul of players and coaches in the entire competition. Former Hurricanes head coach Colin Cooper comes in to replace Rennie, with ex-Crusaders and Bath assistant Tabai Matson one of several new faces alongside him. But it is the onfield turnover that leaves you wondering about their chances of success in 2018. Gone are star halves Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow to France, the lynchpins of the attacking think tank, while winger James Lowe – who ranked in the top three of the competition for tries scored, run metres, line breaks and offloads in 2017 – is now plying his trade with Leinster in Ireland. Veteran Stephen Donald has finally called time on his stellar Super Rugby career, and the combative, dynamic workhorse that is Michael Leitch, will be sorely missed after he headed to the Sunwolves in Japan, and a chance to prepare in his adopted country ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The biggest knock-on effect of all this is the pending shift from fullback to flyhalf from Super Rugby Player of the Year, Damian McKenzie. His ability to control a game from the highest traffic area on the field, rather than the opportunistic injection of himself into fractured parts of it, will be absolutely crucial to their progress. Cooper and co. will also have worked on discipline, after they conceded the highest number of penalties in 2017 – interestingly, alongside the Crusaders. Ultimately, a side with McKenzie, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Charlie Ngatai and Anton Lienert-Brown still in tow, is not likely to fall completely off the wagon. But that exodus of talent on both sides of the rope must surely have an impact.

NOTABLE IN’S: Tyler Ardron (Ospreys, Wales), Levi Aumua (Tasman),Tiaan Falcon (Hawke’s Bay), Fin Hoeata (Taranaki), Luke Jacobson (Waikato),Marty McKenzie (Crusaders), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Hurricanes), Regan Verny (Wellington)

NOTABLE OUT’S: Finlay Christie (Hurricanes), Aaron Cruden (Montpellier, France), Stephen Donald (Counties Manukau), Hika Elliot (Oyonnax, France), Siegfried Fisiihoi (Stade Français, France), Tawera Kerr-Barlow (La Rochelle, France), Michael Leitch (Sunwolves), James Lowe (Leinster, Ireland), Tom Sanders (Crusaders)

KEY PERFORMERS: Hard to go past Damien McKenzie. If you like running rugby with plenty of flair, skill and a touch of the unknown, his highlight reel from last year should be set on repeat. But can he be as effective in the no10 jersey?; With so much talent and experience lost to new adventures, the likes of Brodie Retallick and captain Sam Cane will need to push themselves even further than before for the Chiefs cause, and expect All Black props Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala to stiffen up the scrum, and their hold on a test jersey in the process.

ONES TO WATCH OUT FOR: Tyler Ardron is an intriguing acquisition. The skipper of the Canadian national side at the 2015 Rugby World Cup will become the first ‘Canuck’ to play for a New Zealand franchise, and while competition for places in the backrow will be hard-fought, the fact that the Chiefs went out and got him in the first place must indicate that they believe he has what it takes to survive in the world’s premier club competition; Having been forced to settle for precious little game time behind TJ Perenara at the Hurricanes, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has shifted to the Chiefs to try out for the vacant scrumhalf position left by Tawera Kerr-Barlow. Brad Weber should have first shout but the 22-year-old will be champing at the bit on the sidelines for a chance to prove himself.

DRAW: Looks favourable. They start with a couple of tough away derbies before the bye, then have only trips to Tokyo and Brisbane to contend with in the middle part of the year. Treks to Cape Town and Durban in rounds 12 and 13 to play the Stormers and Sharks respectively are potentially hazardous, but they finish with four home games from their last five and also have a meeting with the Highlanders in Suva, Fiji. They also don’t have to play the Lions.

 

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HIGHLANDERS
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Like the Chiefs, it’s all change in the coaches box for the Highlanders, but player-wise, the movement has been nowhere near as savage as their counterparts in the North Island. Champions just three years ago, they have experienced a slow-shuffle of coaching talent ever since with Jamie Joseph heading to Japan to take over the national job at the end of 2016, and entrusting assistant Tony Brown to step up and oversee matters last year, before joining Joseph in the land of the rising sun. That continuity has ended with the arrival of Aaron Mauger. The legendary former Crusader had been dipping his toes in the coaching pool for the last few years in the UK with Leicester Tigers, but after being handed complete control mid-season after Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill was sacked, Mauger himself was controversially released just a couple of months later, despite having just led the side to an Anglo-Welsh Cup victory – their first silverware in four years.

No doubt with a point to prove, the 46-capped All Black centre takes charge of a team that performed well for most of last season, without ever really giving evidence that they were a genuine title contender. Eleven wins from 15 matches is nothing to sniff at, and victories over the Stormers in Dunedin and the Brumbies in Canberra afforded glimpses of what they could be. But ultimately, it was losses to the Crusaders (twice, despite leading late in the piece on both occasions), the Hurricanes and the Chiefs that restricted them to fourth place in the conference, from where their South Island rivals did for them again 17-0 in week one of the finals. It will be interesting to see which direction Mauger takes them style-wise. For a squad that was blessed with an abundance of ball-running prowess through Aaron and Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Tevita Li, Matt Faddes and Patrick Osborne, they finished no higher than 9th on the end-of-season lists for run metres, line breaks, tackle busts and offloads, while kicking more than anyone else in the competition.

What they did have was one of the best performing scrums and lineouts, an ability to get over the gain-line better than anyone except the Jaguares, and one the best disciplinary records going around. But with Fekitoa and Osborne now departed, any desire to play more expansively may be curtailed by the cattle Mauger has to work with, or their familiarity with what has worked in recent years. The absence of Marty Banks may be keenly felt too. Nominally the back-up flyhalf last year, he stepped into the injured shoes of Sopoaga superbly, and his accurate boot added 120pts to the cause. Any similar breakdown for the starting no.10 this year may severely test their strength-in-depth.

Tyrel Lomax_Tasman_2017

Tyrel Lomax could be Australia’s loss and New Zealand’s gain

NOTABLE IN’S: Shannon Frizell (Tasman), Josh Ioane (Otago), Tyrel Lomax (Rebels), Josh McKay (Canterbury), Tevita Nabura (Counties Manukau), Pari Pari Parkinson (Tasman), Kalolo Tuiloma (Counties Manukau), Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wellington)

NOTABLE OUT’S: Marty Banks (Benetton), Shane Christie (Tasman), Gareth Evans (Hurricanes), Malakai Fekitoa (Toulon), Sione Halanukonuka (Glasgow Warriors), Craig Millar (Sunwolves), Patrick Osborne (Kubota Spears, Japan), Hayden Parker (Sunwolves), Joe Wheeler (Suntory Sungoliath, Japan)

KEY PERFORMERS: Both Smiths are obviously standout players in this squad, but both may be keen to reassert themselves for different reasons – Aaron to cement himself as the All Blacks starting scrumhalf as he comes under increasing pressure from the fast-improving and consistent TJ Perenara, Ben with time to make up for after missing large swathes of 2017 with concussion issues, and his Steve Hansen-approved end-of-year sabbatical; With nine tries and over 1000 run metres to his name, Waisake Naholo was the go-to man in the backline last year. With 12 tries in just 18 tests for New Zealand, he is a proven finisher, and someone Mauger is bound to want get the ball to as often as possible.

ONES TO WATCH OUT FOR: Tyrel Lomax arrives from the Rebels with a reputation as one of the most promising tightheads running around, and with a surname familiar to most New Zealander’s who are across the stars of both oval ball codes. Dad John played 15 times for the national rugby league team in the 1990’s before settling in Australia post-career. Tyrel had been groomed as a future Wallaby with run-outs for both the Australian Schoolboys and U20 sides. But his switch to the land of his heritage has already seen him capped for the Maori All Blacks. Australia’s loss may just be New Zealand’s gain.

DRAW: A chance to get off and running with a home match against the Blues before the bye in round two, and they enjoy further home advantage against the Stormers and Crusaders in weeks three and four. In fact, they don’t travel outside of New Zealand until round 11’s journey to South Africa, where they face the Bulls and Sharks. They may look at the fact that they don’t meet the Jaguares or Sunwolves this year as potential points lost, but their conference finish is likely to come down to clashes with the Hurricanes (Dunedin), Chiefs (Suva, Fiji) and Crusaders (Christchurch) in rounds 15-17.

 

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BLUES
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The hope when Tana Umaga took control of the Blues in the backend of 2015, was that the legendary All Black would finally be able to turn around a franchise that has been underachieving for so long, that memories of their dominance in the early days of Super Rugby are fading with every annual failure. Winners of the first two editions of the then fledgling competition back in 1996 and 1997, they added another title in 2003 for good measure. But in the 15 years since they can only point to two semi-final appearances in 2007 and 2011 as evidence of being anywhere near title contention, and in the year preceding Umaga’s arrival they had fallen to an all-time low of 15th on the ladder.

Two years later and the Eden Park faithful are still awaiting genuine signs of a revival. There has been the odd spark here and there, and they have produced some of the most exciting running rugby in recent memory, and plenty of wonderful tries. But while both seasons under Umaga have seen improvement (11th in 2016 and 9th last year), they have been far too flaky and inconsistent to mount a serious challenge. A microcosm of this fact is the famous defeat of the touring British & Irish Lions in June, and the 48-21 collapse to the lowly Sunwolves in Tokyo just a month later.

They are no-doubt hamstrung by being in the ultra competitive New Zealand conference, as borne out by their last-place finish in 2017 despite pooling more points than Australia’s top team, the Brumbies. Indeed, they finished in the top seven for tries scored, run metres, line breaks and tackle busts, so there is no lack of intent. But if they are to play finals football for the first time in seven years, they are going to have to find a way to beat their compatriots, because a record of one win from their last 22 derbies is simply not good enough. In the Ioane brothers, Sonny Bill, Jerome Kaino and Patrick Tuipulotu, they have some of the best talent on both islands. But they will need these guys to fire each and every week, and several more to step up if they are to progress.

NOTABLE IN’S: Leni Apisai (Hurricanes), Otere Black (Hurricanes), Caleb Clarke (Auckland), Daniel Kirkpatrick (Albi, Italy), Dalton Papali’i (Auckland)

NOTABLE OUT’S: Charlie Faumuina (Toulouse, France), Piers Francis (Northampton Saints, England), Billy Guyton (Tasman), Steven Luatua (Bristol, England), Sam Prattley (Auckland), Rene Ranger (La Rochelle, France), Ihaia West (Hurricanes)

KEY PERFORMERS: As the above highlights reel reminds us, 2017 for one Rieko Ioane was pretty damn special. But while we hope that that was just the start of a memorable career for club and country for the 20-year-old, there are more than a few scribes out there predicting that elder brother Akira could break out in just such a spectacular fashion in 2018, if he can stay fit and get some consistency into his game; With stalwart Charlie Faumuina now in France, the responsibility of locking down that Blues front row falls even more heavily on 14-capped All Black Ofa Tu’ungafasi; New captain Augustine Pulu was one of the Blues’ best last time out, but as with Richie Mo’unga at the Crusaders, the strength-in-depth in the halves positions in New Zealand saw him as effectively fourth in line for a test jersey at scrumhalf. His new responsibility and the departure overseas of Tawera Kerr-Barlow may push him further up the pecking order.

ONES TO WATCH OUT FOR:  Son of Warren, Bryn Gatland is likely to get first stab at the no.10 jersey left vacant by Ihaia West’s move south to the Hurricanes, but will no doubt battle it out it with Otere Black across the year, who made the journey in the opposite direction. Unlike Dad, who was a feisty hooker for Waikato back in the day, 22-year-old Bryn is a talented pivot with a tidy kicking game and an eye for a gap; Keeping it in the family, Caleb Clarke – son of former All Black Eroni – is likely to be warming the bench for most of the year. But the 107kg 18-year-old showed with his performances for the Baby Blacks at the 2017 Under-20s World Championships – where he bagged six tries – that he has the footwork to run around defenders, and the size to run over them.

DRAW: Pretty horrible. For all the progress the Blues may possibly make this season, the fixture gods certainly aren’t working in their favour. They face the Highlanders, Chiefs, Lions and Stormers (the latter two in South Africa) in the opening month, before a much-needed bye leads them into a visit by the Sharks in week six. They must travel to Tokyo, scene of last year’s final round nadir against the Sunwolves, and to Sydney to take on the Waratahs, but do have six home games at Eden Park in their last nine matches to look forward to. However, they face both the Hurricanes and Crusaders twice in their last six games, and if that aforementioned derby stat hasn’t begun to improve by then, it could be goodnight Vienna for another year.

 

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POINTLESS PREDICTION TIME

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In a conference as hotly contested as this, and with five teams all with viable claims on a place in the finals, it does seem harsh that one at least has to miss out due to the current system. The New Zealand derbies are consistently the best games to watch in Super Rugby, with any sides involved throwing the kitchen sink at it in terms of both entertainment and brutality, and there is no reason to expect anything less in 2018 with all five franchises jam-packed with All Black talent, and plenty keen to make their case for inclusion down the track.

Top spot is most likely to be battled out once more between the champion Crusaders, and the most consistent NZ team of recent years, the Hurricanes, and you could make a reasonable case for both to make the last four again at least. But I’m just going to give the edge to the Canes this time, and to send departing coach Chris Boyd out on a high, possibly with another title.

Behind them, the fluctuations at the Chiefs on and off the pitch may bring them back to the field a bit, and if Aaron Mauger can bed in nicely at the Highlanders, they have the roster to win plenty of games and sit on the shoulders of the top two. But if it takes time to get his feet under the table, the talent-laden Blues will be ready to pounce, if only they had a better draw.

1st HURRICANES – 2nd CRUSADERS – 3rd  HIGHLANDERS – 4th CHIEFS – 5th BLUES

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