With the five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises having revealed their 2021 squads this week, Christopher Reive takes a look at how they shape up.
Main question: Can the stars carry the team?
Year after year, the importance of squad depth comes to the fore - through injury, suspension or other unavailability. In 2021, it could be what cripples the Hurricanes.
There are a number of stars in this squad. In the pack, the likes of Ardie Savea, Dane Coles, Tyrel Lomax, Du'Plessis Kirifi and Vaea Fifita. In the backs, the likes of Jordie Barrett, Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso. But beyond them, the Hurricanes will be relying on many players who are green to Super Rugby level and although have had stellar years in the Mitre 10 Cup, have yet to make that next step. The stars will need to be healthy and in-form to steer this team in the right direction.
They will also be without the services of halfback TJ Perenara this year, with their long-time No 9 taking a sabbatical in Japan, which leaves a massive hole not only in terms of game play, but in leadership as well. In his place, the Hurricanes turn to what has been the back-up brigade in recent years, with either Jamie Booth (returning from a nasty leg injury) or Jonathan Taumateine the likely option to start in the season, with Bay of Plenty's Luke Campbell also brought into the team. With 26 games in Super Rugby, Booth is now the team's most experienced campaigner, while Campbell hasn't played in the competition.
Best addition: Julian Savea - midfield
Player to watch: Peter Umaga-Jensen – outside back
Main question: How will the change in coach impact them?
In a rather unusual scenario, the Chiefs will have their third head coach in as many years with Clayton McMillan taking the reins while Warren Gatland takes the year off to spend with the British and Irish Lions.
There will have to be questions asked elsewhere if they finish with as poor a record as they did in 2020 – going winless in Super Rugby Aotearoa. The Chiefs hold an advantage in the No 9 jersey, as there are few established, international-level halfbacks in New Zealand and the Chiefs have two of them: Brad Weber and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi. As usual, they're stacked in the loose forwards, adding young gun Kaylum Boshier to their already deep group.
Having such depth in the loose forwards will allow the side to deploy Mitchell Brown at lock, which should help them cover a glaring hole in their roster. While they have some exciting and intriguing talent in their squad, the most experienced of them is Tupou Vaa'i - the story of the 2020 season who will technically be a rookie in 2021 as he was an injury replacement player in 2020. There is also the question as to who steps into the No 10 jersey with Aaron Cruden gone. The club signed Bryn Gatland, who will compete for the role with Kaleb Trask.
Best addition: Chase Tiatia – utility back
Player to watch: Lachlan Boshier – loose forward
Weakness: Outside backs
Main question: How will Tony Brown change things?
The Highlanders only won three games in the 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, though their play was much better than their record suggested. Led by halfback Aaron Smith, the Highlanders were competitive in most matches. They come into 2020 with a new head coach in Tony Brown, but a similar squad which will again rely on the leadership of Smith, who fronts a solid group of halfbacks ahead of Kayne Hammington and Folau Fakatava.
While the side lost star flanker Dillon Hunt to the Blues, Liam Squire makes his return and adds to a strong loose forwards group. But like the Hurricanes, a lack of depth in some areas could prove costly should they be unfortunate and cop some lengthy injuries or suspensions.
Their outside backs leave a bit to be desired, featuring a couple of sevens exponents, and Nehe Milner-Skudder who has struggled with injuries throughout his career. Solomon Alaimalo's arrival from the Chiefs was a much-needed signing as he has shown he can be a star when fit, and slots in as an option on the wing or at fullback, but consistency in the group as a whole is a concern.
Best addition: Solomon Alaimalo – outside back
Player to watch: Josh Dickson - lock
Main question: Who replaces Beauden Barrett?
The Blues have a formidable squad for 2021, though a key component to their Super Rugby Aotearoa success is missing, with Beauden Barrett missing next season on sabbatical in Japan. The two-time World Rugby player of the year spent time at both first five-eighth and fullback in 2020, and while Otere Black is a proven entity in the No 10 jersey, the departure of fullback Matt Duffie – who signed with Honda in Japan – leaves a vacancy at the back. Does Stephen Perofeta earn another crack in the Blues' No 15 jersey, or do they look to one of their newly signed rookies in Zarn Sullivan or Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens? Of the options at hand, only Sullivan has spent a meaningful amount of time at fullback recently, but is yet to experience Super Rugby level.
In the pack, they're well stocked with plenty of All Blacks, including four of their six props. The arrival of Dillon Hunt from the Highlanders just adds to the depth and competition of playing time in the loose forwards, with Hunt among the top players in the position in 2020 and likely to contender for the starting openside flanker spot with Dalton Papalii and Blake Gibson.
In all, the Blues have built on the success they had in their most recent campaign and while there may be some questions asked in a few positions, they should be competing for the title.
Best addition: Nepo Laulala - prop
Player to watch: Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens / Zarn Sullivan – outside backs
Main question: Can they ward off challengers to the throne?
It's very hard to find a weakness in this squad. But with Braydon Ennor already ruled out for the season, it leaves a hole in the midfield alongside Jack Goodhue. That takes us to one of the team's strengths, in where the outside backs run so deep that David Havili appears the likely option to start in the midfield. Even with wingers George Bridge and Manasa Mataele set to miss the first half of the season due to injury, they have a number of established options available on the wing, and Will Jordan is the likely starting fullback.
But their biggest strength comes a lock – an area where just about every other team lacks depth. Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Quentin Strange, Mitchell Dunshea and Luke Romano will all be vying for playing time for the Crusaders. On most other teams, they would all be starters.
Their squad remains largely unchanged from that of their 2020 campaign, with some young players joining the mix as they continue their rise through the ranks.
The Crusaders should head into the season as favourites, and after four straight titles they deserve to be seen as the ones to beat.
Best addition: Isaiah Punivai – outside back
Player to watch: Leicester Fainga'anuku – outside back