The tough New Zealand conference should again yield four teams who qualify for the Super Rugby playoffs.
Campbell Burnes contends that, despite the format changes, Kiwi sides will again dominate Super Rugby.
Super Rugby has cut three sides and is now back to a 15-team competition, as it was in 2015.
New-look format? Maybe, but expect more of the same sort of results. That is, New Zealand teams dominating. We should again see four of the Kiwi franchises in the playoffs.
On the face of it, the Blues’ lack of squad depth might mean they again draw the short straw and prop up the ultra-competitive New Zealand conference. But things are rarely this cut and dried in Super Rugby when we debate the merits of the Kiwi teams.
How badly will the Chiefs miss their seasoned halves pairing of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden? Will Colin Cooper swiftly be able to mould a strong core of 30 around his new signings and, perhaps most crucially, will Damian McKenzie prove that the best fullback in the competition can make the transition to running the cutter of this proud franchise?
The Hurricanes are the most dangerous attacking outfit and, if Beauden Barrett fires consistently, will be hard to peg. They have potent back three options and an under-rated pack, where loose forward Brad Shields will act as the glue in his final campaign before heading to northern climes. In Toby Smith and Sam Henwood, they have made two interesting and potentially astute picks in the pack.
The Highlanders will miss Lima Sopoaga when he flies north in August, but until then he is more than capable of guiding his troops into the playoffs. Ben Smith will be fresh and refreshed.
What to make of the Blues? Well, if Stephen Perofeta can seize the No 10 jersey, make it his own and show us authority to match his brilliance, they will go alright. But they need the likes of Patrick Tuipulotu and Sonny Bill Williams to lead the way and for Ofa Tu’ungafasi to scrum like he has never scrummed before.
That leaves the defending champion Crusaders. They may not have Kieran Read for the opening weeks, but the vigour and experience of the pack, led by New Zealand Rugby player of the year (overall and in Super) Sam Whitelock, will again lay a rock-solid platform. Then it is over to Richie Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue and Israel Dagg to cut some capers and give the ball to Seta Tamanivalu, David Havili et al. Something tells me they will be well up for a ninth title and right in the mix come July/August.
The Waratahs (in 2014 and thanks to a bad refereeing decision) are the sole side since 2011 to break the Kiwi Super hegemony. It would be a shock in 2018 if the champions came from outside these shores. It would need a South African team, a la the Lions in 2017, to top the table, thus holding home advantage through the playoffs, and then finish it all off in the season’s climax. Big ask.