Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Five New Zealand rugby storylines for 2016

Kieran Read will need a new training partner with retirement of Richie McCaw. Photo
Kieran Read will need a new training partner with retirement of Richie McCaw. Photo

Herald rugby writer Patrick McKendry looks at the five key rugby storylines heading into the 2016 season.

Kieran Read, All Black captain

The first thing Kieran Read will have to do when he reports for Crusaders duty later this month is find a new training partner. He and the newly retired Richie McCaw were virtually inseparable on the Rugby Park training field at Crusaders HQ, just as they were in camp with the All Blacks. More importantly, Read will have to adapt to the pressure and scrutiny of captaining the All Blacks on a fulltime basis. The 30-year-old Read, who has played 84 tests, has spoken several times about his excitement at taking on the role and he will begin his reign, fitness permitting, at Eden Park against Wales on June 11, the first of three tests against Warren Gatland's men.

Sam Cane - replacing the irreplaceable

Another who will have had plenty to think about over the break since the World Cup is Sam Cane, the man in line to wear the black No7 jersey this year and beyond in McCaw's absence.

Cane, who turns 24 next week, was part of the leadership group at the All Blacks last year despite his youth and will relish the chance to be a regular test starter. Of his 31 tests since his debut in 2012, he started 13. Cane, who replaced McCaw in the 79th minute of his team's World Cup final victory over Australia, could take time to grow into the role of McCaw's successor in terms of public opinion, but he is highly rated by his coaches and teammates.

Sam Cane will most likely take over the number seen All Blacks jersey from Richie McCaw. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Sam Cane will most likely take over the number seen All Blacks jersey from Richie McCaw. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett or Lima Sopoaga?

Another legend of the game - Dan Carter - departs, another role up for grabs, but who of Cruden, Barrett and Sopoaga has the best chance to secure the No10 jersey? With Cruden ruled out of the World Cup with a knee injury, and Sopoaga going close but just missing selection for the UK, Barrett must have the inside running despite his utility value on the reserves bench. Barrett was brilliant in the United Kingdom, coming on at fullback (replacing wing Nehe Milner-Skudder, with No15 Ben Smith moving to the right wing) in all three of the All Blacks' World Cup knockout matches, and scoring the breakout try in the final minutes of the final. But coach Steve Hansen insisted before the tournament that the Hurricanes player was considered a first-five. Sopoaga, outstanding for the Highlanders and similarly for the All Blacks in his one test last year - at the daunting Ellis Park in Johannesburg - will also be pushing hard.

Aaron Cruden missed the Rugby World Cup due to a knee injury. Photo / Greg Bowker
Aaron Cruden missed the Rugby World Cup due to a knee injury. Photo / Greg Bowker

Super Rugby or super shambles?

Most think the latter in the wake of the revamp which includes the addition of three teams - the Kings from South Africa, the Sunwolves from Japan and the Jaguares from Argentina, and it's not difficult to understand why. The competition, which already looked bloated with 15 teams, has just been given three more who are likely to struggle, plus a format which is becoming increasingly complicated. There will be four conferences in two groups - an Australasian group featuring the Australian conference (Brumbies, Force, Rebels, Reds, Waratahs) and New Zealand conference (Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders Highlanders, Hurricanes), and a South African group featuring Africa conference 1 (Bulls, Cheetahs, Stormers, Sunwolves) and Africa conference 2 (Kings, Lions, Sharks, Jaguares). All of which means more travel for all teams and more matches against teams which New Zealand rugby supporters are unlikely to care about.

The Sunwolves will be the first Japanese team to enter Super Rugby.
The Sunwolves will be the first Japanese team to enter Super Rugby.

Tana's big challenge at Blues

Expectations from the public are likely to be low regarding the Blues following the disastrous coaching reign of John Kirwan which followed that of Pat Lam's, but there will still be plenty of scrutiny on Tana Umaga from the time his team open their season at Eden Park against the champion Highlanders on February 26. Umaga will at least begin with the full backing of the franchise following the unprecedented split at board level last year between those who wanted Kirwan to stay, and those who wanted him gone.

New Blues coach Tana Umaga. Photo / Jason Oxenham
New Blues coach Tana Umaga. Photo / Jason Oxenham

- NZ Herald

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