Fresh off the All Blacks’ World Cup triumph in England, New Zealand’s five Super Rugby teams have started the rebuilding process for the 2019 tournament in Japan with a massive influx of new talent for this season’s tournament.
With several All Blacks either retiring or taking lucrative offshore deals, almost a quarter of the 195 players contracted by the five teams have received their first full-time professional deals this year.
Eleven of the players new to Super Rugby are from the ‘Baby Blacks,’ who won the under-20 World Cup in Italy.
The player garnering the most interest from that team is Auckland Blues’ loose forward Akira Ioane, who made his Super Rugby debut in 2015 but is already being talked about as a potential end-of-year All Blacks tourist this year.
Ioane’s younger brother Reiko is also at the Blues, who have appeared in the playoffs just twice over the past decade and reached their nadir last year with three wins and 14th place.
While former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga is entering his first season as a Super Rugby coach with the Blues, two long-serving counterparts, Canterbury Crusaders’ Todd Blackadder and the champion Otago Highlanders’ Jamie Joseph, are stepping down at the end of the season.
Blackadder has failed to add to the Crusaders’ seven titles in his seven years in charge and has a squad shorn of experience with Richie McCaw retired while Tom Taylor, Dan Carter and Colin Slade all ventured offshore.
Joseph has agreed to coach Japan after the season and his side, still unfancied despite winning last year’s competition, will want to prove the pundits wrong again and send him away with a second title.
The Wellington Hurricanes, who were the best side in the competition last year before playing poorly against the Highlanders in the final, will struggle to replace All Blacks’ centre pairing Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
They should still prove tough to beat with a big, mobile pack and explosive backline, though they have several early season injury worries and are likely to lose dynamic openside flanker Ardie Savea to the Olympic campaign.
Dave Rennie’s Waikato Chiefs appear on paper to be the strongest side in the New Zealand conference.
Flyhalf Aaron Cruden has returned from a knee injury and will be keen to cement his All Blacks place with Carter having moved to France, while Sam Cane will want to prove the decision to pick him as McCaw’s successor as New Zealand skipper was the right one.