After a disjointed start in South Africa, Super Rugby gets underway for New Zealand teams this weekend. From Ben Smith to Brodie Retallick, Rieko Ioane and Jack Goodhue, there is no shortage of All Blacks in action but Liam Napier highlights others flying under the radar.
Braydon Ennor (Crusaders)
Another one that got away from Auckland's perspective. So quick he could threaten a speed gun, Ennor was snapped up on a two-year deal by the Crusaders after three games for Canterbury. It proved a savvy signing. Ennor finished that season with 10 tries – four in one match against Southland – 31 clean breaks from 10 games and will now make the step up. Faces stiff competition from Seta Tamanivalu, George Bridge and Jone Macilai on the wings but may also feature in the midfield. Given Ennor looked up to Conrad Smith it should not surprise he made his mark at centre for the world champion New Zealand under-20s.
Also keep an eye on: Mitchell Dunshea
Big, strong and knows his way to the line, Dunshea consistently shone for Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup and he completes ridiculous depth in the Crusaders' second-row. May struggle for game-time behind Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano but can also slot on the blindside.
Sam Lousi (Hurricanes)
Testament to the impact quality coaches can have. Lost at the Waratahs, Lousi now seems primed to thrive in the XV-man game. Wellington coach Chris Gibbes deserves plenty of credit for Lousi's rugby development. The big second-rower (almost 2 metres and 122kg) arrived in the capital by way of the Warriors and Waratahs with his career in freefall. Lousi won two junior titles at the Warriors before moving to Sydney after a call from Michael Cheika.
The move didn't go to plan, with injuries limiting his involvement and the 'Tahs guilty of not taking the care to educate Lousi on the intricacies of the lineout in particular. Converts, especially those in the forwards, need time to flourish. Now, in his fourth rugby season, Lousi is increasingly comfortable. Carrying strongly comes naturally but his ability to smother and hold attackers off the ground to force turnovers is a genuine weapon. Should only improve further under John Plumtree's guidance, and joins a group of emerging locks putting pressure on Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu.
Also keep an eye on: Matt Proctor
Versatile and underrated, Proctor's ability to string together consistent performances have been hampered by injury. Comfortable anywhere from second-five out, he may find a home at fullback until Jordie Barrett returns. Proctor has been on the cusp of the All Blacks only to be sidelined. His road back now appears clogged but he remains a gifted talent with sharp feet, sound tactical nous and distribution skills.
Dillon Hunt (Highlanders)
Plucked from relative obscurity by the Highlanders, Hunt went on to make his debut off the bench for the All Blacks against the French XV in Lyon last year. That completed a whirlwind ride for the Westlake Boys' product, who started in Dunedin with the University Colts B team. Now ensconced in the professional ranks, Hunt has beefed up his frame and will get first crack at the Highlanders openside role in a strong loose forward trio that includes Liam Squire and Luke Whitelock. With James Lentjes due to return from a shoulder injury in April, Hunt needs to make an early impression. In the national pecking order he starts fourth ranked but a taste of the All Blacks could inspire a breakout season.
Also keep an eye on
Tyrel Lomax, the prop pried back from Australia and whistled straight into the New Zealand Maori team, and Tasman lock Pari Pari Parkinson who stands at 2.04 metres.
Brad Weber (Chiefs)
Potentially career-defining season for the one test All Blacks halfback. Started with a bang, scoring a hat-trick in the final preseason match against the Brumbies but must now kick on after returning from a broken leg. Tawera Kerr-Barlow's departure to France strips the Chiefs of invaluable experience, but also leaves the door open for an intriguing battle between Weber, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Jonathan Taumateine for the starting role. Should be no excuses with a quality pack to play behind. Weber, who played his sole test off the bench in Samoa in 2015, has lightening pace but it is crisp speed of pass and decisive decisions from the base the All Blacks want. Mitchell Drummond has his foot in the door after joining the All Blacks in the latter stage of the northern tour but the third halfback spot is up for grabs.
Also keep an eye on: Solomon Alaimalo
Starred from fullback for Northland and despite limited involvement collected Chiefs' rookie of the year last year. After missing out on attempting to lure Seta Tamanivalu, Waisake Naholo and Julian Savea, much rests on the finishing ability of the likes of Alaimalo this season. Interestingly, he had never visited Hamilton prior to joining the Chiefs.
Stephen Perofeta (Blues)
Misses the start of the season with a broken hand but expectations – from the All Blacks down – are already building around this 20-year-old talent. Mostly that comes on the back of his performance in the memorable victory over the British and Irish Lions. It wasn't a perfect outing but, on debut, Perofeta showed plenty of vision and, most importantly, never looked overawed. He backed that up with a solid campaign for Taranaki. Perofeta possesses brilliant feet and does not shy away from challenging the line. No doubt errors will come as he grasps the responsibility of guiding the Blues but does seem the future at No 10 for this franchise.
Also keep an eye on: Scott Scrafton
Patrick Tuipulotu is the All Black in the second-row but Scrafton established his presence as the leading figure in the Blues' lineout. Something of an unheralded character, Scrafton is an influential member of the pack, one who often does the graft while others seek glory.