The five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises announced their full squads for next season today. Campbell Burnes breaks down each squad.
There is some late Super Rugby reward for North Harbour's sterling title charge in the Mitre 10 Cup Championship.
No 8 Murphy Taramai, a former All Blacks Sevens and Wellington rep, who made every post a winner in 2016 by playing almost every minute for the union, has won a late, and fully deserved, call-up to a fulltime contract. The 24-year-old Taramai brings a high work-rate and carries well, as does lock/No 6 Brandon Nansen, who had his injury issues with North Harbour, but made an impact whenever he played.
They join new signings who had already been flagged in Sonny Bill Williams, Augustine Pulu, Otago's Michael Collins, Taranaki's Stephen Perofeta, Canterbury prop Alex Hodgman, Counties Manukau lock/loosie Jimmy Tupou and Steelers prop Pauliasi Manu, who returns to the franchise he should never have been forced to leave in 2012.
Others who had not been flagged include Waikato hooker Hame Faiva, whose play has matured nicely in 2016, Northland lock Josh Goodhue, and Taranaki wing Declan O'Donnell.
Midfielders Rene Ranger and TJ Faiane return from long-term injuries.
The unlucky man is North Harbour's inspirational skipper and lock/No 6 Chris Vui, who may have missed out to his bigger teammate Nansen.
If the Blues can stay fit, they will surely make the playoffs, but they cannot again finish bottom of the New Zealand conference for that to happen.
Backs: Michael Collins (Otago), Matt Duffie (North Harbour), TJ Faiane (Auckland), Billy Guyton (Tasman), Rieko Ioane (Auckland), Matt Vaega (North Harbour), George Moala (Auckland), Melani Nanai (Auckland), Sam Nock (Northland), Declan O'Donnell (Taranaki), Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki), Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), Rene Ranger (North Harbour), Jordon Trainor (Waikato), Ihaia West (Hawkes Bay), Sonny Bill Williams (Counties Manukau), Piers Francis (Counties Manukau).
Forwards: Gerard Cowley-Tuioti (North Harbour), Epalahame Faiva (Waikato), Charlie Faumuina (Auckland), Blake Gibson (Auckland), Josh Goodhue (Northland), Alex Hodgman (Canterbury), Akira Ioane (Auckland), Jerome Kaino (Auckland), Steven Luatua (Auckland), Sione Mafileo (North Harbour), Pauliasi Manu (Counties Manukau), Matt Moulds (Northland), Brandon Nansen (North Harbour), James Parsons (North Harbour), Sam Prattley (Auckland), Kara Pryor (Northland), Scott Scrafton (Auckland), Murphy Taramai (North Harbour), Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau), Ofa Tu'ungafasi (Auckland),
Sefo Kautai steps up as one of five new Chiefs for the 2017 squad.
The 20-year-old prop, who made his Waikato and New Zealand Under 20s debut just this season, has been in the Chiefs' sights since he left Auckland's Sacred Heart College. He can play both sides of the scrum and has been brought on slowly by the franchise, much like Atu Moli.
The other rookies are Bay of Plenty hooker Liam Polwart, another New Zealand Under 20 product, Taranaki midfielder Johnny Fa'auli, Northland's rookie outside back Solomon Alaimalo and Tasman's back-up halfback Finlay Christie.
The Chiefs have also re-signed seasoned internationals Liam Messam, anxious to return to something like his best after a 2016 that did not go according to plan, and Manu Samoa utility back Tim Nanai-Williams, who, like Messam, has been in Japan.
Nepo Laulala and Mitch Karpik will return from long-term injuries, while Stephen Donald will have another run, hoping to emulate his June effort against Wales.
There are no less than 31 returning Chiefs from the 2016 season, and the franchise will lean on that experience as they seek to send coach Dave Rennie off to Glasgow with a third championship in six seasons.
Nepo Laulala (Counties Manukau)
Atu Moli (Waikato)
Siegfried Fisi'ihoi (Bay of Plenty)
Mitchell Graham (Taranaki)
Kane Hames (Tasman)
Sosefo Kautai (Waikato)
Hika Elliot (Counties Manukau)
Nathan Harris (Bay of Plenty)
Liam Polwart (Bay of Plenty)
Brodie Retallick (Hawkes Bay)
Dominic Bird (Canterbury)
Michael Allardice (Hawkes Bay)
James Tucker (Waikato)
Taleni Seu (Auckland)
Mitchell Brown (Taranaki)
Sam Cane (Bay of Plenty)
Mitchell Karpik (Bay of Plenty)
Lachlan Boshier (Taranaki)
Tom Sanders (Canterbury)
Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Waikato)
Brad Weber (Hawkes Bay)
Finlay Christie (Tasman)
FIRST FIVE EIGHTH:
Aaron Cruden (Manawatu)
Stephen Donald (Waikato)
FIRST FIVE EIGHTH / OUTSIDE BACK:
Damian McKenzie (Waikato)
Charlie Ngatai (Taranaki)
Anton Lienert-Brown (Waikato)
Johnny Fa'auli (Taranaki)
MIDFIELD / OUTSIDE BACK:
Solomon Alaimalo (Northland)
Sam McNicol (Hawkes Bay)
James Lowe (Tasman)
Chase Tiatia (Bay of Plenty)
Toni Pulu (Counties Manukau)
Glen Fisiiahi (Counties Manukau)
Shaun Stevenson (Waikato)
The Hurricanes have built on their 2016 title-winning squad and have rewarded strong Mitre 10 Cup form with the selection of Taranaki No 8 Toa Halafihi.
The 22-year-old scored the winning try for his province over Auckland to help them reach the semifinals, and will replace Victor Vito, now in France.
Jordie Barrett and Taranaki halfback Kylem O'Donnell are also Super Rugby rookies, as is Tana Umaga's nephew Peter Umaga-Jensen, a versatile outside back who has yet to turn 19 but had some nice moments for Wellington this season.
Several players are returning from injury, including wings Ben Lam and Nehe Milner-Skudder, and Taranaki loose forward/lock Blade Thomson, while Cory Jane will be back once the Japanese season is over in February.
The hope is that lock James Broadhurst's concussion symptoms ease enough for him to resume his career, which stalled soon after he became an All Black in 2015.
In all, there are seven new Hurricanes, including lock Sam Lousi, who has come from the Waratahs via Wellington, and the promising Canterbury loose forward Reed Prinsep, plus Lam, who was deemed surplus to requirements at the Blues.
No less than 31 players took part in the 2016 Hurricanes' campaign.
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi
Andrew Makalio is the latest transplanted Aucklander to make good elsewhere.
The 24-year-old Tasman hooker was a loan player to Wairarapa-Bush (out of Auckland) for the 2015 Heartland Championship, but played 11 quality games for the Makos in their march to the 2016 Premiership final. He carries strongly, executes his core tasks well and will be seeking to put heat on Ben Funnell for that back-up Crusaders rake role.
There are nine new Crusaders in a solid-looking squad on paper, while second five Tim Bateman, currently on tour with the Maori All Blacks, is back after stints with the Hurricanes and overseas.
Former Wallabies wing Digby Ioane will look to step into Nemani Nadolo's shoes, while in the pack, Canterbury prop Oli Jager, Tasman lock Quinten Strange and Manawatu loose forward Heiden Bedwell-Curtis will debut.
In the backline, North Harbour halfback Bryn Hall switches from the Blues, while Taranaki's All Blacks midfielder Seta Tamanivalu will seek to round off the rough edges to his defensive game in a new team. Canterbury wing/fullback George Bridge joins, as does Tamanivalu's nephew, 20-year-old wing Manasa Mataele, also from Taranaki.
The Highlanders and the man himself will be hoping Tevita Li can consistently bring his A game to the wing as one of five new to the franchise.
Li is just 21 but has three years with the Blues behind him. On his day, he can be almost unstoppable, but has a tendency to drift. However, he was close to some of his best form for North Harbour, scoring seven tries and not missing one minute for his union in 2016.
Li is one of five players new to the Highlanders, the others being Chiefs duo, halfback Kayne Hammington and prop Siate Tokolahi, Otago lock Josh Dickson, and 24-year-old Southland prop, Australian-born Guy Millar, who has played 14 games for the Western Force.
Richard Buckman, Hayden Parker and Josh Renton return from long-term injuries, but there was no such luck for prop Brendon Edmonds, who is still not right from a bad knee injury, so he has not been named.
New head coach Tony Brown, who will have just one season in the job before heading back to Japan, has the luxury of no less than 33 players returning from the 2016 squad.