WELLINGTON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Factbox on the teams in the New Zealand Super Rugby Conference:
AUCKLAND BLUES (Auckland)
Coach: Tana Umaga (third year)
Captain: Augustine Pulu
Last year’s finish: Ninth (W-7, D-1, L-7)
Best performance: Champions (1996, 1997, 2003) Chances: A year when the three-times champions must make the playoffs. They have stabilised their performances against overseas sides under the coaching of former All Blacks captain Umaga, but still struggle against the other New Zealand teams, who they will play more often in the new format this year. Player to watch: Winger Caleb Clarke. The son of former All Blacks midfielder Eroni, the 18-year-old Caleb has demonstrated the same line-breaking running ability of his father with impressive performances in sevens and a pre-season 10s tournament in Brisbane. May not get many chances to impress early on with a talent-heavy pool of outside backs, but could force his way into contention.
Forwards - Leni Apisai, Matt Moulds, James Parsons, Alex Hodgman, Sione Mafileo, Pauliasi Manu, Isaac Salmon, Mike Tamoaieta, Ofa Tuungafasi, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Josh Goodhue, Scott Scrafton, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jimmy Tupou, Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane, Jerome Kaino, Dalton Papalii, Glenn Preston, Kara Pryor, Murphy Taramai.
Backs - Sam Nock, Augustine Pulu, Jonathan Ruru, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Bryn Gatland, Stephen Perofeta, Otere Black, Matt Johnson, George Moala, Rieko Ioane, Tamati Tua, TJ Faiane, Sonny Bill Williams, Caleb Clarke, Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, Melanie Nanai, Jordan Trainor.
Coach: Scott Robertson
Captain: Sam Whitelock
Last year’s finish: Second (W-14, L-1)
Best performance: Champions (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2017)
Chances: The eight-times champions again start as favourites having finally shaken off the Deans’ curse and won their first title since their former coach Robbie Deans left in 2008. Their greatest strength is again a grizzled group of All Blacks forwards with players like Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Israel Dagg and David Havili providing punch and efficiency behind the pack.
Player to watch: Flyhalf Richie Mo’unga has moved into serious All Blacks contention with Aaron Cruden’s departure for France and Lima Sopoaga’s decision to go to England at the end of the season. Former Crusaders’ assistant coach Leon MacDonald compared him to All Blacks great Dan Carter last year and the 23-year-old will have plenty of opportunities to prove that was not just hyperbole.
Forwards - Michael Alaalatoa, Scott Barrett, Ethan Blackadder, Wyatt Crockett, Mitchell Dunshea, Owen Franks, Ben Funnell, Billy Harmon, Oliver Jagr, Andrew Makalio, Joe Moody, Timy Perry, Kirean Read, Luke Romano, Pete Samu, Tom Sanders, Quinten Strange, Jordan taufua, Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, Sam Whitelock
Backs - Tim Bateman, George Bridge, Ryan Crotty, Israel Dagg, Mike Delany, Mitchell Drummond, Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue, Bryn Hall, David Havili, Mitchell Hunt, Will Jordan, Jone Macilai, Manada Mataele, Richie Mo’unga, Jack Stratton, Seta Tamanivalu
OTAGO HIGHLANDERS (Dunedin)
Coach: Aaron Mauger (first year)
Captains: Ben Smith, Ash Dixon
Last year’s finish: Seventh (W-11, L-4)
Best performance: Champions (2015)
Chances: The Highlanders again enter a season with only a few big names but are expected to prove that a team is a sum of all parts rather than a collection of individuals, indicating a strong team culture. Ben Smith returns from a six-month sabbatical, while his All Blacks team mate flyhalf Lima Sopoaga will want to leave for English club Wasps on a high.
Player to watch: Lock Jackson Hemopo impressed with a barnstorming performance against the British and Irish Lions that propelled him into a team regular in the latter part of the season. A strong provincial campaign also earned him selection for the Maori All Blacks and he should be a regular with Tom Franklin in the second row.
Forwards - Luke Whitelock, Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon, Shannon Frizell, Dillon Hunt, James Lentjes , Dan Pryor, Alex Ainley, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Josh Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson, Kalolo Tuiloma, Siate Tokolahi, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Tyrel Lomax, Aki Seiuli, Guy Millar, Ash Dixon, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Liam Coltman
Backs - Ben Smith, Josh McKay, Tevita Li, Waisake Naholo, Tevita Nabura, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Richard Buckman, Patelesio Tomkinson, Matt Faddes, Rob Thompson, Teihorangi Walden, Lima Sopoaga, Fletcher Smith, Josh Ioane, Josh Renton, Kayne Hammington, Aaron Smith
Coach: Colin Cooper (first year)
Captain: Sam Cane
Last year’s finish: Sixth (W-12, D-1, L-2)
Best performance: Champions (2012, 2013)
Chances: A year of change for the two-times champions after coach Dave Rennie left for Glasgow while stalwarts James Lowe and Aaron Cruden headed to Europe and Japan captain Michael Leith signed for the Sunwolves. New coach Cooper has a strong pedigree as head coach of the Hurricanes for eight years but how the team is guided by flyhalf Damien McKenzie will determine whether they make the playoffs for the seventh successive year.
Player to watch: Utility back Damian McKenzie has made no secret he would prefer to play at flyhalf and with Aaron Cruden leaving last year, has been given the chance to prove his credentials in the pivotal role under new coach Cooper. McKenzie’s incisive running from fullback and instinctive style of play may need to be tempered a little closer to the scrum.
Forwards - Aidan Ross, Atunaisa Moli, Kane Hames, Mitchell Graham, Nepo Laulala, Sosefo Kautai, Liam Polwart, Nathan Harris, Samisoni Taukeiaho, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Fin Hoeata, Michael Allardice, Lachlan Boshier, Liam Messam, Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Brown, Mitchell Karpik, Sam Cane, Taleni Seu, Tyler Ardron
Backs - Brad Weber, Jonathan Taumateine, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Damian McKenzie, Marty McKenzie, Tiaan Falcon, Alex Nankivell, Anton Lienert-Brown, Charlie Ngatai, Johnny Faauli, Regan Verney, Tim Nanai-Williams, Levi Aumua, Sam McNicol, Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo, Toni Pulu
Coach: Chris Boyd (fourth year)
Captain: Dane Coles
Last year’s finish: Fifth (W-12, L-3)
Best performance: Champions (2016)
Chances: Chris Boyd’s final season in charge looms as the one where the team from New Zealand’s capital are pushing the Crusaders as favourites for the title. They made the semi-finals last year without really playing at the same level of the two previous seasons and if they can give flyhalf Beauden Barrett the same time and space as 2016 he could set alight a backline that can tear any team to shreds.
Player to watch: All Blacks winger Julian Savea has come back into Super Rugby for the last two years battling weight and fitness problems that have affected his play. The malaise ultimately cost him his place in the national side, less than 12 months after being an automatic selection. The 27-year-old has vowed to earn his All Blacks jersey back, which could provide some additional fireworks from an already explosive backline.
Forwards - Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli, Chris Eves, Alex Fidow, Ben May, Toby Smith, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, James Blackwell, Murray Douglas, Michael Fatialofa, Sam Lousi, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Gareth Evans, Vaea Fifita, Sam Henwood, Reed Prinsep, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Blade Thomson
Backs - Jamie Booth, Finlay Christie, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Jackson Garden-Bachop, TJ Vaa, Ihaia West, Vince Aso, Ngani Laumape, Matt Proctor, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Jordie Barrett, Wes Goosen, Ben Lam, Jonah Lowe, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea (Compiled by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O’Brien)