Jan 29 (Reuters) - Factbox on New Zealand’s Super Rugby Conference for the 2020 season:
CANTERBURY CRUSADERS (Christchurch)
Coach: Scott Robertson (fourth year)
Captain: Scott Barrett
Last year: First (W-11, D-3, L-2)
Best performance: Champions (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2017, 2018, 2019)
Chances: The Crusaders’ hopes of becoming the first side to win four successive titles will depend on how quickly Scott Robertson can develop the players who have stepped in to replace several departed All Blacks.
The departure of veterans Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty, Owen Franks, Matt Todd and Jordan Taufua, as well as Sam Whitelock’s sabbatical in Japan, has torn the heart out of a grizzled pack that formed the basis for their recent domination.
Much will rest on flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, centre Jack Goodhue and fullback David Havili taking on greater leadership roles in a backline that lacks the depth of recent years.
WELLINGTON HURRICANES (Wellington)
Coach: Jason Holland (first year)
Co-captains: Dane Coles, TJ Perenara
Last year: Fourth (W-12, D-1, L-3)
Best performance: Champions (2016)
Chances: The Hurricanes have had a tumultuous off-season with coach John Plumtree leaving just six weeks before the big kick-off to become assistant to new All Blacks coach Ian Foster.
Plumtree’s former assistant Jason Holland has been promoted to the top job and has a new forwards coach in Chris Gibbes, with former All Blacks winger Cory Jane also fast-tracked into the set-up.
The team will also need to rethink their backline with flyhalf Beauden Barrett shifting to the Auckland Blues and centre Matt Proctor heading to Northampton, while Ardie Savea is expected to miss most of the season following knee surgery.
The pack is full of mobile ball handlers but lacks the physicality of previous sides, although lock Isaia Walker-Leawere could push for higher honours if he can build on an impressive season last year.
WAIKATO CHIEFS (Hamilton)
Coach: Warren Gatland (First year)
Captain: Sam Cane
Last year’s finish: Seventh (W-7, L-2, L-7)
Best performance: Champions (2012, 2013)
Chances: Former Wales coach Gatland’s return home to Hamilton will garner much of the attention for a team that are expected to be the best in New Zealand’s conference.
The Chiefs were gutted by injury last year and only made the playoffs on the final week of the regular season when other results ran their way.
The return of flyhalf Aaron Cruden from overseas will see Damian McKenzie, who missed most of 2019 with a knee injury, switch back to arguably his most influential position at fullback.
Sam Cane will lead a tough forward pack that includes inspirational Canada captain Tyler Ardron, although they will miss the impact of Brodie Retallick, who is in Japan for the next two years.
Coach: Aaron Mauger (Third year)
Captain: James Lentjes
Last year’s finish: Eighth (W-6, D-3, L-7)
Best performance: Champions (2015)
Chances: Mauger has been forced into a major rebuilding project with the loss of All Blacks Ben Smith, Liam Squire, Waisake Naholo, Luke Whitelock and Jackson Hemopo.
The former All Blacks midfielder has opted for youth in his 2020 squad, indicating that the team is being built for 2022 and beyond.
Like the Chiefs, the Highlanders only made the playoffs last season following the final week of games and are likely to struggle this year.
Their chances may depend on how well scrumhalf Aaron Smith and flyhalf Josh Ioane control a backline that should produce some inventive play after Tony Brown returned from his duties with Japan.
AUCKLAND BLUES (Auckland)
Coach: Leon MacDonald (second year)
Captain: Patrick Tuipulotu
Last year’s finish: 13th (W-5, D-1, L-10)
Best performance: Champions (1996, 1997, 2003)
Chances: The arrival of two-time World Player of the Year Barrett from the Hurricanes could give the three-times champions the fulcrum at flyhalf they have been searching for since 2005.
Barrett, however, is on extended leave and his return might come too late for MacDonald’s side, who have not made the playoffs since 2011 but should finish higher than the bottom three.
Focus will be on the Ioane brothers, with All Blacks winger Rieko moving to the centres this season, while number eight Akira will aim to shake off the tag as a perennial underachiever and try to replace Read in the national side.
Compiled by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford