Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Shuffling the deck

BLUES
Plans are being drawn to build world class training facilities at the Blues - an area franchise boss Andy Dalton feels is in need of urgent attention. The Blues currently split their training between their base at Unitec in Mt Albert and Eden Park but neither venue services all the needs of the modern professional team.

"We need facilities that are fitting for a modern professional team and at the moment we have a bit of a mish-mash," says Dalton. "We are definitely the poorest of any of the New Zealand franchises in facilities."

A search has begun to find a venue, with Unitec and Eden Park the most likely sites, although Dalton says they are exploring the region. The Blues want an improved weights room, medical facilities, a big space for team analysis and other major gatherings such as referee meetings and judicial hearings. The resurgence in form this year will have also helped convince ambitious players that the Blues are on the right track and getting closer to fulfilling their potential. Their retention is going to be moderately good for next season and while they will be weak in certain positions, their pack will remain largely intact.

Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Charlie Faumuina, Ali Williams and Anthony Boric will form an impressive tight five. The re-signing of Rudi Wulf will give them experience and versatility in their back three.

The final factor in their favour is the growing realisation that Auckland is not the big, bad place it is often made out to be. Alby Mathewson and Stephen Brett have both settled in the city and been pleasantly surprised by what they have found.

Confirmed Departures:
John Afoa, Jared Payne and Luke McAlister.

Possible Departures:
Stephen Brett.

What They Are Looking For: A No 8, first five and midfield backs.

Trump Card: Pat Lam has found a hard edge this year that the team needed to know was there and Mealamu has matured into one of the best captains in the country. That sense of being on the cusp of a successful new era is interesting big name players.

Who Will They Actually Get?
They are a serious chance of landing Ma'a Nonu. The discarded Hurricane is in wide demand but the Blues are at the front of the queue. They play his kind of rugby and have the players elsewhere in the side to ensure that Nonu is not solely responsible for busting holes. Beauden Barrett is another who could be tempted to move north and try his luck at being the long term No 10.

CRUSADERS
As always, the Crusaders will have no problem attracting players. Dan Carter and Richie McCaw have committed for the long term.

Then there is the growing reputation of Todd Blackadder as a thoughtful, inclusive and gifted coach.

Finally there is the winning legacy and culture of success. If there is one potential problem, it is the thought of living in Christchurch. Many of the current squad have had their moments where they and/or their families have been scared by events and have contemplated moving. Lifestyle-wise, Christchurch is a problem but rugby-wise, it is the place all the current squad want to be.

Confirmed Departures: Brad Thorn, Kahn Fotuali'i, Matt Berquist.

Possible Departures: Chris Jack and Andy Ellis.

What They Are Looking For:
A couple of locks and a halfback.

Trump Card:
The Carter-McCaw-Blackadder axis and the legacy of success. The Crusaders win titles or, at the very worst, challenge for titles.

Who Will They Actually Get?
Former Crusader Jamie Nutbrown is back in the country after a stint in Wales and might be lured south again as a halfback option. Could Jason Eaton be heading to the Crusaders in the hope that, like many talented drifters before him, he can go there and be transformed?

HURRICANES
Given the tumultuous departures of Ma'a Nonu and Andrew Hore and the obvious tension in the Hurricanes camp, it would be a brave player to arrive from outside the region.

The Hurricanes are for locals only at the moment and even then only for those prepared to adhere to the structures and value systems imposed by Mark Hammett.

They would also have to believe that Hammett has the ability to turn things around and start winning games and titles.

Some of the heat will die down in the coming weeks now the media storm has passed and the picture will become clearer again when the likes of Piri Weepu, Cory Jane and Hosea Gear confirm what they are doing. If they stay, as well as Aaron Cruden, then there is at least a backline to foster confidence.

The problem for everyone already at the Hurricanes and those thinking about going there is the tight five. They could be exceptionally weak. Ben May is coming but that's not a huge get for them. Nor is there much conviction that Hammett is right to have so much faith in Dane Coles. Jeremy Thrush is athletic but loose at lock, Bryn Evans has gone and Jason Eaton is undecided.

Confirmed Departures:
Neemia Tialata, John Schwalger, Andrew Hore, Anthony Perenise, Bryn Evans, Ma'a Nonu, Tyson Keats.

Possible Departures:
Cory Jane, Hosea Gear, Piri Weepu, Jason Eaton, Aaron Cruden.

What They Are Looking For:
Props, locks, a halfback and midfield backs.

Trump Card:
The backline, if the big names all commit, has the potential to be something special. Weepu and Cruden have the pedigree to control games and win a title. Smith is all class in the midfield and Jane and Gear form a potent threat from the back. Nonu will be missed but, with possession and the right attitude, this backline is good enough to draw ambitious players to the capital.

Who Will They Actually Get? They desperately need at least one quality tight lock and will be trying hard to persuade Jarrad Hoeata and or Josh Bekhuis to make the move north. Neither is likely to rush into that. Tom McCartney might be tempted by the thought of regular game time at prop, while Taniela Moa could be the back-up halfback they need.

CHIEFS
They have the most holes to fill given the number of confirmed departures and are already pushing hard to lure talent. But they might find it is a hard sell. The Chiefs have lost their way horribly in the past two years after making the final in 2009. Crowds have dwindled, money is in short supply and there is no pedigree of consistent success.

Some might wonder whether 2009 will be as good as it ever gets.

The exodus has been severe and there will be no senior core to build around in 2012 and a shortage of experience and leaders. That means the Chiefs could become more attractive to younger players who want to get in at ground level; men who have the patience to build something over a number of years. Because success won't come quickly, it is unlikely the Chiefs will carry huge appeal to the wavering band of Hurricanes players and there would seem to be virtually no chance of Sonny Bill Williams ending up there.

Confirmed Departures:
Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Dwayne Sweeney, Ben May, Aled de Malmanche, Mike Delany.

Possible Departures:
Stephen Donald and Isaac Ross.

What They Are Looking For:
A tight five, a first five, some strike power in the back three and a midfield partner for Richard Kahui.

Trump Card:
New coach Dave Rennie is hugely respected and, having been New Zealand under-20 coach for three years, he knows where the talent is across the country. He is an astute selector and a clever tactician; he knows what type of rugby he wants to play and what kind of players he will need to be successful. His visionary outlook and proven record of delivering will be tempting for players.

Who Will They Actually Get?
The Chiefs are unlikely to lure much in the way of established pros. Rennie's skill will be in taking provincial stalwarts who have flown under the radar and building them into top class individuals. Ma'a Nonu will rightly wonder whether the Chiefs can ever win a title in his playing lifetime and ultimately conclude no. Aaron Cruden will also be tempted but if Piri Weepu, Hosea Gear and Cory Jane all stay at the Hurricanes, he'd be advised to do the same - that's a backline, with Conrad Smith and Julian Savea, that can win games.

HIGHLANDERS
It won't be easy for Jamie Joseph to lure players south but it will be easier than it was this time last year. The Highlanders now have an environment that is inspiring and captain Jamie Mackintosh has said that he and several other senior players are already looking forward to next season - something they haven't felt for several years.

They have a management team who have built trust and respect and a sense there is more to come. The Highlanders are no longer a basket case - the refuge of the washed up and desperate or young blokes who couldn't get a contract anywhere else. They showed this season they can compete with the best and, with some more depth in their squad, they could have made the top six.

When injury and fatigue struck in the closing weeks, they were exposed - losing games to the Lions and Force that effectively killed their playoff hopes. Still, they achieved enough to convince Colin Slade and Ben Smith to sign on for more. Jarrad Hoeata is keen to stay as well and it is probable that both Lima Sopoaga and Shaun Treeby will remain in Dunedin next season.

Confirmed Departures:
Alando Soakai.

Possible Departures:
Nasi Manu and Josh Bekhuis.

What They Are Looking For:
The Highlanders have plenty of rugged, durable players who front each week and do their core roles - Mackintosh, Jason Rutledge, Hoeata, Adam Thomson and Smith. What they are lacking is X-factor and it is this that Joseph is after. Kade Poki and Smith provided an element of that this year but Joseph is talking about the really big names - Ma'a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams or Rene Ranger types. If they could land a couple of ball carriers with the ability to break a defence and marry it with their counter-rucking and effective rush defence, they could take a massive step again next year.

Trump Card:
The new stadium is an intriguing addition, as it has a roof which means the Highlanders will be guaranteed a dry ball and fast track for their home games. They could easily become the most entertaining side in the country and an expansive and well executed game plan could see big names seriously considering joining the Highlanders.

Who Will They Actually Get?
They are likely to miss out on what they really want. One year is not enough for the biggest names to believe they are joining something secure. Nonu at the Highlanders is hard to envisage and Joseph is going to have to hope he can attract youngsters on the periphery of other franchises whose pathways are blocked there by bigger stars. They are likely to get Hore whether they actually want him or not unless the All Black hooker decides to sign with Agen.

- Herald on Sunday

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