With another Super Rugby season upon us, NZME's rugby reporters take a look at the big questions for the season ahead.

Patrick McKendry
Winner: Crusaders. Best team, most depth, and Scott Robertson is the best coach in competition. They know what it takes.
Semifinalists: Crusaders, Lions, Hurricanes, Waratahs. For the Crusaders, it's just what they do, the Lions will be guaranteed a place when they win the South African conference, the Hurricanes' backline will light a few fires and the Waratahs could be a real danger.
Last place: Sunwolves. The Japanese side are on a hiding to nothing with their travel schedule and limited player-base.
Standout player: Richie Mo'unga (Crusaders). Mo'unga will again excel at first-five, leading to the inevitable comparisons with All Black rival Beauden Barrett.
Player on the up: Harry Plummer (Blues). Superb for Auckland last year. First-five Plummer is only 20 and one to watch. A good long-term bet.
Team on the up: Blues — because of the Leon MacDonald factor, plus they can't get much worse (they came second to last in front of the Sunwolves last year).

Liam Napier
Winner: Crusaders.
Semifinalists: Crusaders, Hurricanes, Highlanders, Waratahs.
Last place: Reds. Tony Brown has recruited well for the Sunwolves — luring several Kiwis. And there is little to inspire about Brad Thorn's Reds.
Standout player: Ngani Laumape. Recently recommitted to New Zealand rugby and will be highly motivated in World Cup year. If given a decent platform, another destructive season in the offing.
Player on the up: Dalton Papalii (Blues). The bolter in the All Blacks last year, Papalii may struggle for game-time with Blake Gibson named Blues co-captain. More accustomed at No.7, it would not surprise to see the sizeable Papalii get a run at blindside in a trio with Akira Ioane and Gibson.
Team on the up: The Rebels should continue their rise from easybeats to credible competitors while the Bulls, directed by Handre Pollard and having recruited Springboks Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Brits and Cornal Hendricks, look the best of the South African bunch.

Can the Crusaders repeat as Super Rugby champions? Photo / Getty Images
Can the Crusaders repeat as Super Rugby champions? Photo / Getty Images

Christopher Reive





Hurricanes, Crusaders, Lions, Chiefs.

Last place:

Sunwolves. I'd like to say they'll improve a lot, but I just can't see it happening this year.

Standout player:

Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes). He will stamp out any doubts people may still have of him being the All Blacks first-choice No.10.

Player on the up:

Lachlan Boshier (Chiefs). He should own the Chiefs No.7 jersey with Sam Cane sidelined. He showed plenty of potential last year.

Team on the up:

The Blues are a genuine playoffs contender this season if their squad stays healthy.

Nigel Yalden
Winner: Lions.
Semifinalists: Lions, Highlanders, Brumbies, Crusaders.
Last place: Sunwolves. This will be a close run thing with the Reds and Bulls but even with more overseas influence in their playing stocks, it won't be enough to avoid another wooden spoon.
Standout player: Akira Ioane (Blues). Of all the Blues forwards, Ioane will be the one who'll benefit the most from Tom Coventry's coaching and he'll firmly establish himself as the heir to the All Blacks No.8 spot.
Player on the up: Jordan Petaia (Reds). Still a month short of his 19th birthday, this young man is super talented and will only get better and better with every minute played; will be part of the Wallabies Rugby World Cup squad.
Team on the up: Brumbies. The return of Laurie Fisher enhances the already quality coaching team. They have that same quality right across their playing squad and have the best openside flanker in the world.