Buckle up, rugby fans: Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks off tonight.
The Highlanders will host the Crusaders in their season opener at 5.05pm AEDT on Friday, then the Hurricanes take on the Blues from 5.05pm AEDT on Saturday.
The Crusaders extended their remarkable run of Super Rugby success by claiming the inaugural Aotearoa championship in 2020, so can any of their New Zealand rivals knock them off their perch?
We’ve ranked the five teams ahead of kick off.
1. Crusaders: 2020 record 6-1-1 (champion)
Attack: 31.3 points per game (1st)
Defence: 21.1 points per game (1st)
First three rounds: Highlanders (away), Hurricanes (home), Chiefs (home)
It seems that no matter what format of Super Rugby is played, these Crusaders just keep on winning, having taken out Super Rugby titles for three straight years (2017-2019), before COVID brought about the concept of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Which they also won.
Visionary coach Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson will again look for his team to win the vast majority of their games, but especially the ones that matter.
This year’s squad is loaded with All Black talent and experience, but also with a lot of depth across the entire squad.
Scott Barrett will return as captain following an injury-ravaged season last year.
Speaking of injuries, the men in red and black have had their fair already, with All Blacks centre Braydon Ennor and back-up hooker Andrew Makalio out for the season.
Further reassembling of the backline will be required with wingers George Bridge, Manase Mataele and criminally underrated utility David Havili all due to miss time to start the year.
Those injuries should ensure that budding superstar Will Jordan will get more time at his preferred position of fullback, following a season where he was the leading try-scorer (six) in Super Rugby Aotearoa, despite very limited playing time.
His deadly pace out wide, coupled with the creativity of Richie Mo’unga and the competition’s leading forward pack, could very well see those try-scoring numbers go way up.
This side is far from invincible, but anyone with title aspirations will have a massive task trying to unseat the champs.
Key player: Richie Mo’unga
Mr Underrated: David Havili
2. Blues: 2020 record 5-2-1 (runner up)
Attack: 25.1 points per game (3rd)
Defence: 21.3 points per game (2nd)
First three rounds: Hurricanes (away), Bye, Highlanders (home)
The Blues turned a corner in 2020.
After years of frustrating their fanbase by underperforming on the field, while letting talent slip through their net to achieve success at other franchises, last year they finally stepped back into title contention.
Similar to the Reds in Australia, the Auckland-based side has big aspirations that this could actually be their year to win their first title since 2003.
Last year, Leon MacDonald’s men rode a wave of momentum, as All Blacks star Beauden Barrett joined the side, but it was the play of the guys further out wide who stole the show.
Wingers Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea exploded out of the blocks, seemingly beating opponents at will and ably supported by the devastating Rieko Ioane at centre.
Another player to take a huge step last year was rampaging No 8 Hoskins Sotutu, whose hot form saw him join Clarke in making his debut for the All Blacks.
Sotutu is part of a formidable loose forward unit that includes game-breakers Akira Ioane and Dalton Papalii, the hard-working Blake Gibson and Tom Robinson, as well as Highlanders recruit Dillon Hunt.
The front five is similarly stacked for the Blues, with captain Patrick Tuipulotu leading an All Blacks-laden tight forward unit.
Given steady possession and potent attack out wide, the pressure will be on the halves combination of Sam Nock and Otere Black to pull the strings to get this team to the promised land.
Key player: Hoskins Sotutu
Mr Underrated: Mark Telea
3. Hurricanes: 2020 record 5-3 (3rd place)
Attack: 25.3 points per game (2nd)
Defence: 26.6 points per game (4th)
First three rounds: Blues (home), Crusaders (away), Bye
Last year, Hurricanes coach Jason Holland was asked to do more with less, following from the shock departure of Beauden Barrett.
In 2021 he is being asked to do even more with even less, as inspirational halfback and captain TJ Perenara plays the season in Japan.
Despite losing such critical personnel, there was a lot to like about the Hurricanes last year, as they were able to compete strongly with the top teams and find some resilience, which has often been lacking over the years.
Highlights included a win over the Chiefs where they survived a red card and became the first team to beat the Crusaders at home since 2016.
That game saw the emergence of young centre Peter Umaga-Jensen, who went on to earn an All Blacks call-up.
Jordie Barrett has also emerged as a leader for this side, as well as perhaps the most clutch goalkicker in the competition, with crucial goals to in close wins over the Blues and Crusaders.
The Wellington-based side will also look to strong leadership from newly appointed captain Ardie Savea and already the drums are beating about his potential to one day lead at Test level.
Joining the new skipper is older brother Julian Savea.
‘The Bus’ returns to the number 11 jumper following a strong Mitre 10 Cup for Wellington.
Shortcomings at the playmaking positions are expected to hold this side back, but by the end of 2020 they proved that they could indeed beat anyone in the competition.
Key player: Ardie Savea
Mr Underrated: Isaia Walker-Leawere
4. Highlanders: 2020 record 3-5 (4th place)
Attack: 24.6 points per game (4th)
Defence: 28.4 points per game (5th)
First three rounds: Crusaders (home), Chiefs (away), Blues (away)
2020 was a disappointing campaign for the southerners.
Following an internal season review, head coach Aaron Mauger was let go and replaced by Highlanders icon Tony Brown, who had returned in an assistant role last season.
Brown is seeking for his side to find its identity again, in an effort to return to the glory days of 2015, when they were crowned Super Rugby champs.
Part of that identity will be driven by new defence coach Shane Christie, whose playing days epitomised what the Highlanders are about – grit and determination.
Returning to the franchise this year is former All Blacks flanker Liam Squire, who will be competing with the likes of Shannon Frizell, the impressive Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and Japanese import Kazuki Himeno, in a crowded loose forward lineup.
Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley transferred from the Rebels to bolster the front row stocks, though he is set to miss a large chunk of the season due to a high ankle sprain.
Pulling the strings for an exciting backline will be co-captain Aaron Smith, supported by talented trio Josh Ioane, Mitch Hunt and Folau Fakatava who hit serious form in the Mitre 10 Cup for Hawke’s Bay.
Outside them is plenty of excitement with new recruit Solomon Alaimalo joining the promising Connor Garden-Bachop and former sevens star Jona Nareki, who showed great potential in his rookie season.
Look for the Highlanders to re-establish their identity and play a good brand of footy under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Key player: Aaron Smith
Mr Underrated: Josh Ioane
5. Chiefs: 2020 record 0-8 (last)
Attack: 19.4 points per game (5th)
Defence: 26.5 points per game (3rd)
First three rounds: Bye, Highlanders (home), Crusaders (away)
The Chiefs are looking to rebound, following a disastrous end to last season.
Starting Super Rugby in 2020 with three straight wins seemed like a lifetime ago as they slumped to lose eight straight in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Their defence was steady, conceding the third fewest points in the competition – led in large part by fantastic flanker Lachlan Boshier, who inexplicably missed out on being selected for higher honours.
The problem for the Chiefs was winning the key moments in matches – losing twice to the Highlanders via a buzzer-beating drop goal in Dunedin and last-second try in Hamilton, which showed a lack of being able to finish a game off.
The man responsible for the drop goal – Bryn Gatland – has actually joined the Chiefs fold this year, however his father and coach Warren Gatland is tending to British and Irish Lions duty.
Gatland will be replaced this season by Maori All Blacks coach Clayton McMillan.
Also leading the revival this year will be co-captains Brad Weber and Sam Cane.
Cane is also the All Blacks captain and Weber will provide Cane with some relief from a punishing workload.
The Chiefs will be looking for their loose forwards to steal more than their fair share of ball and for brilliant fullback Damian McKenzie to return to his pre-ACL injury form.
If McKenzie can operate as a playmaker out wide, he will ease some pressure on inexperienced five-eighths Gatland, Kaleb Trask and Rivez Reihana.
Whether that can move the Chiefs out of the cellar this year remains to be seen.
Key player: Damian McKenzie
Mr Underrated: Shaun Stevenson
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