Super Rugby 2019: New Zealand Conference preview
Last Updated: 12/02/19 5:15pm
New Zealand sides dominated the battle for last year's Super Rugby crown and they look well placed to lead the chase once again in 2019.
The Crusaders set the standard last year on their way to a ninth title but they were not the only Kiwi side to leave their mark on the competition with the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders also producing some brilliant rugby on their way to the knock-out stages.
Those sides look set to spearhead the challenge for the glory crown once again this year with the prospect of playing a part in the All Blacks' Rugby World Cup defence likely to inspire similarly impressive feats from their players.
The Crusaders will once again be defending the Super Rugby title having beaten the Lions 37-18 in last season's final in Christchurch.
Head coach Scott Robertson had good reason to bust out some of his now legendary breakdancing moves after seeing his side lose just two regular season games on their way to back-to-back titles.
Prolific wing George Bridge and ever-influential fly-half Richie Mo'unga were key figures throughout 2018 and both return for the latest campaign along with a host of established names including All Blacks captain Kieran Read, who is poised for a farewell tour having decided not to re-sign with New Zealand Rugby after the World Cup.
There are also some fresh faces up front in the form of loose forward Whetukamokamo Douglas and prop Harry Allan while the backs welcome Brett Cameron and Ngane Punivai, following eye-catching Mitre 10 Cup campaigns, and Leicester Faingaanuku.
Irish rugby legend Ronan O'Gara is set to continue his coaching career as part of Robertson's backroom staff while this season is set to be the last for assistant Brad Mooar before he heads north to take charge of PRO14 side Scarlets.
Robertson may also be off having recently signalled his interest in the New Zealand job with current All Blacks boss Steve Hansen set to step down following the World Cup. "I'm an aspirational coach," he told Stuff ahead of the new season, "and if the timing is right I'll have a crack".
The Blues finished rock bottom of the New Zealand Conference last year for the fifth straight year with just four wins to their name and only the Sunwolves finished below them in the overall standings.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have restructured their coaching team ahead of the new campaign with Leon MacDonald promoted to head coach and Tana Umaga demoted to the role of assistant.
MacDonald will take charge of attack and Umaga will assume responsibility for the defence with Tom Coventry joining as forwards coach and Daniel Halangahu named as the skills and back coach.
"I am highly motivated to help with the Blues' vision for success," said MacDonald, "I will give it my heart and soul."
He will take charge of a squad that includes two high-profile additions in the form of veteran centre Ma'a Nonu, back from a stint in France and with his eyes set on a third Rugby World Cup appearance later this year, and All Blacks prop Karl Tu'inukuafe.
They also boast significant talent in the form of Sonny Bill Williams, who is out of contract at the end of the year and has hinted that this could be his last season with the Blues.
It could also be a big year for Rieko Ioane, who has already notched 22 tries in 24 Tests for the All Blacks, with the winger central to the Blues' hopes of gracing the playoffs for the first time in eight years or even clinching the title for the first time since 2003.
Ten victories - more than that recorded by the winners of both the Australian and South African Conference last year - proved only good enough for the Highlanders to secure fourth place in the New Zealand Conference.
That impressive run of form, which included a win against the Crusaders, was still enough to earn them a place in the playoffs but their challenge would falter at the first hurdle with defeat at the hands of the Waratahs in Sydney.
Head coach Aaron Mauger will once again take charge this year and he has bolstered is support staff with the appointment of former England international Riki Flutey as skills coach.
This season is also set to serve as a long goodbye for All Blacks veteran Ben Smith who has confirmed he will be leaving for French club Pau after the Rugby World Cup. He will also share the captaincy duties with Luke Whitelock.
"Luke and Ben demand selection for us through the consistency of their performances week to week," said Mauger. "Both players have a great temperament for the game and provide us leadership on and off the field. Having Lukey up front and Bender at the back provides us with a good balance of leadership on the park."
Among the new faces named in their squad are lock Jack Whetton (the son of former All Black Gary Whetton) while in the backs Bryn Gatland (son of Wales boss Warren Gatland) makes the switch from the Blues and will be hoping to fill the void left by the exit of Lima Sopoaga.
The Hurricanes claimed second spot in the New Zealand Conference last year behind the Crusaders with 11 victories to their name - although they were one of only two sides to beat the eventual champions in the regular season.
They ended another Kiwi challenge in the quarter-finals with a narrow 32-31 victory over the Chiefs before the Crusaders underlined their class with a 30-12 win in their semi-final showdown in Christchurch.
John Plumtree has since stepped up from assistant to head coach following Chris Boyd's move north to take charge of English side Northampton Saints and he has also drafted in former All Blacks fly-half Carlos Spencer as his assistant.
All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett was pivotal in their run to the final four in 2018 while wing Ben Lam topped the try-scoring charts with 16 tries and they will once again spearhead the 'Canes challenge this year.
Plumtree can call on the services of many other current and recent All Blacks including TJ Perenara and Dane Coles while they have also recently been boosted by Ardie Savea's decision to re-commit to New Zealand Rugby.
Among the new additions are Auckland wing Salesi Rayasi, Wellington centre Billy Proctor and two-time Super Rugby champion and former Crusader loose forward Heiden Bedwell-Curtis but they lost lock Sam Lousi to a long-term pectoral injury on the eve of the new season.
"We know how important it is to get a home quarter-final and semi-final in terms of winning this competition but of course there is a lot of work to do before you get there," said Plumtree.
"It's a really tough competition, there is no June break this year so we are going to have to play consistently well over a longer period of time," he added.
The Chiefs finished third in the New Zealand Conference last year and, like the Hurricanes, amassed a points total that would have seen them win both the South African and Australian Conferences.
They reached the knock-out stages but fell at the first hurdle with the Hurricanes edging a hard-fought quarter-final encounter in Wellington.
Head coach Colin Cooper will once again orchestrate the Chiefs' campaign and he has the talents of established All Blacks such as Damian McKenzie, Brodie Retallick and Anton Lienert-Brown but he has lost the services of another with Sam Cane sidelined indefinitely with the neck injury he suffered against South Africa in October.
There has also been an injection of fresh talent in the form of 19-year-old Sevens star Etene Nanai-Seturo, a Commonwealth Games gold medal winner with New Zealand in 2018, who has been tipped for a bright future.
Other new faces include prop Reuben O'Neill, New Zealand U20s lock Laghlan McWhannell, and Japan international winger Ataata Moeakiola. There's also a place for New Zealand-born and former Rebels utility back Jack Debreczeni after impressing on Mitre 10 Cup duty for Northland.
Fears of a potential lack of experience and leadership following the departure of several stalwarts including former captains Liam Messam and Charlie Ngatai, who both opted for moves to France in the off-season, have been eased with the recruitment of veteran fly-half Stephen Donald.
The 35-year-old World Cup winner has been re-signed for a third stint with the franchise as injury cover after young playmaker Tiaan Falcon was ruled out for the entire season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
"It's a very exciting squad, and it's great to have a good spread of players from throughout the Chiefs region," commented Cooper.
The Chiefs are also set to return to Fiji for the fourth time when they take their home game against the Crusaders to the ANZ Stadium in Suva on June 1.