Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Blues may be game changer for finals

Nathan Harris, Kieran Read, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Dan Pryor and Stephen Perofeta have their eyes on the prize - but it will be brutal. Photo / Photosport
Nathan Harris, Kieran Read, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Dan Pryor and Stephen Perofeta have their eyes on the prize - but it will be brutal. Photo / Photosport

There's not much, if any, compelling evidence to go against the overwhelming gut instinct that Super Rugby will again be dominated by the New Zealand teams.

But the difference in 2017 is that come the playoffs, New Zealand's domination may not be reflected.

Last year, four Kiwi sides made the last eight and three made the semifinals before the Hurricanes beat the Lions in the final.

Making up half the playoffs was a fair reflection of the way New Zealand's sides had performed throughout the round robin.

In 24 games against Australian teams, New Zealand sides lost only three and drew one. Against the South Africans, they collectively lost four games, which created the crazy situation of New Zealand teams finishing fifth, sixth and seventh, but with more competition points than the fourth-placed Brumbies.

It's wishful thinking on the part of Sanzaar to imagine things will be much different in that regard. More good South African players have headed overseas and only dedicated locals and rugby tragics will recognise much of the personnel.

It's not breaking news that South African rugby is in a bad place and they may not have fallen all the way to the bottom yet. The Lions again look the republic's only hope and, if anything, the rest of their sides may be worse than in 2016.

The picture in Australia isn't so different.

Maybe the Waratahs will be a bit better, but the Brumbies could be on the decline, while the Rebels and Force will be the usual mix of mediocrity delivered by players destined for a career of anonymity. Maybe the Reds will be better but not to the extent they will be contenders.

The gap between New Zealand and the rest may, if anything, have widened. And there is a gap. Last year, it looked as if the New Zealand sides were better equipped in the basic arts of pass and catch and were, generally, playing faster, more skilled rugby. That was reinforced when the New Zealand sides played each other - those games were fast, brutal, end-to-end and not so far removed from the intensity of test matches.

And it was the results of those games that impacted most heavily on the final placings. There was no dominant force within the New Zealand conference. They took points off each other and that allowed the best of the Africans and Australians to stay in touch on the table.

The exception in New Zealand was the Blues, who, despite making significant progress, were still not at the level of the other four teams in their conference. They beat the Highlanders in the opening game of the season, but that was their lot on the derby front.

It's a bit harsh to call them the weak link but there's no escaping the maths here, and their inability to compete with the other four ensured that the Hurricanes, Chiefs, Highlanders and Crusaders all ended up with enough points to make the last eight.

This year, however, the Blues have the potential to be the competition changer. This time round, they could be good enough to win more than one domestic derby.

It may take them a few games to find their form, but by the time Jerome Kaino, Patrick Tuipulotu and Sonny Bill Williams are back to full fitness, they are a side with plenty to offer.

Their physicality alone should ensure they take lumps out of their Kiwi opponents, drain them that little bit more, and the ferocity of the New Zealand conference is going to be such that all five teams are likely to be hit with big injury tolls that could leave them running short of energy by the end of the competition.

The bottom line is that the revival of the Blues is going to make it even harder for all five Kiwi sides to get ahead of teams in the other conferences. A New Zealand winner still looks a good bet but they might be scrapping it out with the Australians and South Africans in the playoffs.

- NZ Herald

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