26 Feb 2016

Super Rugby: NZ teams face toughest conference

12:04 pm on 26 February 2016

Sports Call - The 2016 Super Rugby season kicks off in Auckland tonight, with three new teams and a controversial new format. Joe Porter looks at the prospects of the New Zealand teams in the new competition.

The Highlanders after beating the Hurricanes in the Super 15 final.

The Highlanders after beating the Hurricanes in the Super 15 final. Photo: Photosport

New rules for the season include the scrapping of the four-try bonus point in favour of a point for teams who score three tries more than their opponents, while teams will also be allowed to kick for touch with a penalty and play the lineout after time has expired.

This year's competition will feature 18 teams, with the addition of South Africa's Southern Kings, Japan's Sunwolves and Argentina's Jaguars. Matches also being played in Singapore for the first time.

Follow live updates on the matches this weekend

The New Zealand sides are largely pitted against themselves in - by far - the toughest conference.

And it seems wide open.

The defending champions Highlanders have had the least disruptions. They've lost just a couple of players from last year's starting XV, have retained all their All Blacks and have the same coaching staff.

In theory, they should lead the way in New Zealand, though many don't see the title holders as the front-runners, including the bookies.

Halfback Aaron Smith said the southerners are quietly seething at that.

The Highlanders' halfback Aaron Smith in Super Rugby action.

The Highlanders' halfback Aaron Smith in Super Rugby action. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"I still wouldn't say that everyone fully respects us, so we're just going out there to earn more respect this year.

"It's an outside factor for us and it's more about what we think and what our people think down here. And if we earn the respect of our mates and coaches and our management, then that's all we can ask for."

If the Highlanders are chasing respect, then last year's runners-up the Hurricanes are seeking redemption.

They will dodge all talk of atonement, though it is clear they are hurting after being the best team in 2015 and coming up short in the final in front of their home fans.

Their last pre-season performance was impressive - they put 70 points on the Crusaders - though coach Chris Boyd faces a huge task in filling the midfield void left by departing All Black veterans Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.

"Well, you don't fill that hole, you just do the best with what you've got.

"We've had some experienced players that are not here, but we've got some really good players in my mind taking their place," Boyd said.

The Hurricanes midfield depth will be further tested with injuries leaving league convert Ngani Laumape and several other Super Rugby rookies trying to fill Nonu and Smith's inimitable shoes.

The Hurricanes midfielder the former Warriors centre Ngani Laumape.

The Hurricanes midfielder the former Warriors centre Ngani Laumape. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Despite the big name departures the Hurricanes are joint favourites with the 2012 and 2013 champions the Chiefs, whose fortunes will be dictated by the return of All Black first-five Aaron Cruden from 10 months on the injury sidelines.

The Chiefs first-five Aaron Cruden leaving the field injured during the Super Rugby game between the Crusaders and Chiefs  in Christchurch.

The Chiefs first-five Aaron Cruden. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The playmakers' impact will be dampened by the loss of All Blacks Sonny Bill Williams and Augustine Pulu to sevens.

It is the last chance saloon for the outgoing Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder, who has failed to add to the franchise's seven titles in his seven seasons in charge.

The Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder.

The Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

They too have lost World Cup winning All Blacks in Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, leaving a gaping hole at first-five in particular.

Blackadder has been critical of the bonus point changes, labelling them 'bizarre' last month and also bemoaning the lack of consultation with the clubs.

The Blues finished second to last in 2015, and have been installed as the least likely team to win the New Zealand conference. But with former All Black captain Tana Umaga at the helm, fans are quietly confident they will rise from the ashes.

They open the Super Rugby season with tonight's match against the Highlanders in Auckland and Umaga said they were desperate to prove their supporters right.

The Blues coach Tana Umaga.

The Blues coach Tana Umaga. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"We've got a lot to prove and to play against the defending champions who really, for us they epitomise effort and work ethic and good culture and working for each other and I suppose that's what every team wants."

Hooker James Parsons will captain the Blues in the absence of suspended All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino for tonight's match against the Highlanders, while two All Blacks, one past and one present, will come off the bench, with Rene Ranger and Charlie Faumuina in the reserves.

Also tonight the Hurricanes take on the Brumbies in Canberra, though they'll be missing captain and All Blacks hooker Dane Coles who was a late scratching after picking up a calf injury in training.

Dane Coles playing for the Hurricanes in the 2015 Super Rugby season.

Dane Coles playing for the Hurricanes in the 2015 Super Rugby season. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

As for the three new teams, South Africa's latest addition the Southern Kings are unlikely to trouble most top sides, as are Japan's Sunwolves, who could struggle to win more than a couple of games.

Argentina's Jaguars look a much more genuine threat with a host of internationals in the side, though whether they can gel as a team remains to be seen.