With the opening round of Super Rugby just a week away, Christopher Reive looks into his crystal ball to predict who will line up of the Kiwi teams in the opening round of competition.
Matt Duffie, Jordan Hyland, Rieko Ioane, TJ Faiane, Tanielu Tele'a, Stephen Perofeta, Jonathan Ruru, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Blake Gibson, Tom Robinson, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tuungafasi, Kurt Eklund, Karl Tu'inukuafe.
Fringe starters: Joe Marchant, Finlay Christie, Sam Nock, Ray Niuia.
Why? The Blues have indicated Rieko Ioane will make a move into the midfield this season which should see him get more involved in proceedings. Add the departure of Melani Nanai, and it opens up two spots on the wing, Tele'a impressed in limited opportunities last season and looks poised to take the next step in 2020, with Jordan Hyland a good shot to get an opportunity as well. 2019 breakout star Tom Robinson provides impact off the bench behind the loose trio while adding to the depth at lock, with Jonathan Ruru getting first crack at the No9 jersey ahead of Finlay Christie and Sam Nock. New recruit Joe Marchant could force his way into the starting side, but for round one Faiane retains his role. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Otere Black and James Parsons are all expected to miss round one, but shape up as starters once they return.
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Damian McKenzie, Solomon Alaimalo, Alex Nankivell, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sean Wainui, Aaron Cruden, Brad Weber, Pita Gus Sowakula, Sam Cane, Mitch Brown, Tyler Ardron, Michael Allardice, Nepo Laulala, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Atu Moli.
Fringe starters: Angus Ta'avao, Shaun Stevenson, Tumua Manu, Lachlan Boshier.
Why? With the luxury of depth across the board, it's really anyone's guess as to who will line up in round one. I'm giving Wainui the start on the wing ahead of Stevenson as Stevenson provides more versatility off the bench. While McKenzie returns to fullback, Alaimalo is too good a player to not start and will return to a winger's role. Moli gets the start ahead of Angus Ta'avao as the club look to the future, while Sowakula gets the first chance to claim the vacant No8 jersey. Luke Jacobson and Nathan Harris were not considered for selection due to injury.
Will Jordan, George Bridge, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, Sevu Reece, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Billy Harmon, Tom Christie, Quinten Strange, Scott Barrett, Michael Alaalatoa, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody.
Fringe starters: Braydon Ennor, Ethan Blackadder.
Why? How about the depth in that backline? Tentatively locking in Jordan at fullback and Havili in the midfield, there's every chance we see Havili at fullback and Braydon Ennor in the midfield. With the many departures from the Crusaders after last season, the pack more or less fills itself in a mix of reliable familiar faces and exciting up and comers.
Josh McKay, Sio Tomkinson, Rob Thompson, Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Nabura, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith, Shannon Frizell, James Lentjes, Dillon Hunt, Josh Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Liam Coltman, Ayden Johnstone.
Fringe starters: Jona Nareki, Mitchell Hunt, Jesse Parete, Scott Gregory.
Why? Looking through the Highlanders squad, it seems to be a team that fills itself in. The only real question is in the midfield and whether or not they'll stick with the Thompson-Walden combination or opt for Thompson-Tomkinson. If the latter is the case, expect to see Nareki on the wing. During preseason, Josh Ioane has played in the midfield to allow new recruit Hunt to jump into the No10 jersey, but I expect Ioane maintains his role at first five-eighth come the season opener. Parete may see some time starting at lock, but his erratic nature and knack for drawing attention from the referees makes him a risk in the starting XV.
Jordie Barrett, Wes Goosen, Vince Aso, Ngani Laumape, Ben Lam, Jackson Garden-Bachop, TJ Perenara, Gareth Evans, Du'Plessis Kirifi, Vaea Fifita, James Blackwell, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Tyrel Lomax, Dane Coles, Fraser Armstrong.
Fringe starters: Reed Prinsep, Kane Leaupepe, Fletcher Smith, Billy Proctor.
Why? Garden-Bachop gets his shot in the No10 jersey following the departure of Beauden Barrett, but the former back up will be under plenty of pressure from the talented Fletcher Smith. Fifita will spend most of his time on the blindside this season, with exciting prospect Walker-Leawere getting a crack at solidifying himself as a first-choice lock. New recruit Tyrel Lomax slots straight into the front row, while Aso gets the first shot at replacing Matt Proctor in the midfield