- Five first fives? While I could imagine having four as Beauden Barrett will miss half the season, five is too much. It appears that either Leon MacDonald has no idea who will start in Barrett’s absence, or he wanted to deny the chance for another province to have any of Harry Plummer, Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta, or North Harbour rookie Jack Heighton.
- Rieko Ioane in the midfield? Ioane has previously spoken of a desire to play centre and it looks as though he’ll get the first crack. It’s hard to think he’s only 22, but already seems burnt out on the wing. The lifespan of a power winger (see running back in the NFL) can often be very short.
- Who captains the team? Barrett would be the compelling choice, however his sabbatical rules him out. Pick from James Parsons, TJ Faiane, or Blake Gibson.
- How is Otere Black feeling? He moved to Auckland to get away from Barrett and try get some playing time…. Maybe he should have checked where Barrett’s wife’s family lives first.
- Aaron Cruden joins the Chiefs over the Hurricanes. Arguably, the Hurricanes would have been the more desperate team for a first five (more on that later), but Cruden has opted to sign with Warren Gatland for a one year gig.
- What does this mean for Damian McKenzie? Cruden and McKenzie are both too good to leave out of your starting lineup, which suggests the McKenzie experiment at first five is either going on sabbatical or is done and dusted.
- The Naholo conveyor belt continues. Kini Naholo is apparently quicker than his more famous brother, and his mentors believe the 20 year old has the skill set, power, and talent to match Waisake, and possibly go one further.
- Nine new caps. While they haven’t lost too many core players (Brodie Retallick aside), nine new caps represents somewhat of a refresh. Out of those, BOP first five Kaleb Trask is the one to watch, while the surprise pick goes to young Wellington lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi.
- Kane Hames is again not named, and you have to wonder if he’s going down the same path as Reggie Goodes, Toby Smith, James Broadhurst etc.
- Who plays at first five? Beauden Barrett’s departure leaves a Sky Tower shaped hole in the Hurricanes backline. You can’t replace that. So the Canes have to suck it up and make do with what they can. There was a lot of talk about signing a Cruden-type player, although CEO Avan Lee has said they decided not to as they realised they were happy with what they have. James Marshall will be the favourite to run the cutter and hopefully will stay injury free. At 30 years old, this is only a temporary solution…..
- …..which means the Hurricanes will go all out to sign Lima Sopoaga when his European contract expires in 2021. Rumour has it that he’s not overly happy over at Wasps.
- Where does Jordie Barrett play? The Canes are stacked in the back three with Vince Aso, Kobus van Wyk, Wes Goosen, Ben Lam, Jonah Lowe, Salesi Rayasi, Barrett, Marshall, and Chase Tiatia all capable of playing there. Centre is a bit of an issue with the loss of Matt Proctor so I’m gambling we might see Barrett with #13 on the back.
- Kobus van Wyk – where did that signing come from? The ex-Sharks and Stormers winger/centre is the surprise signing. He’s more of a winger than a centre, but he could also be in the running to replace Matt Proctor.
- The tight five – still the Achilles heel? The Canes have lost Sam Lousi, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, and Toby Smith which doesn’t help the ever-present concern regarding the tight five. Scott Scrafton and Tyrel Lomax are excellent signings that should allay some concern.
- There’s been more talk about the coach than the players so far, with Scott Robertson possibly off to coach the All Blacks. That would rule him out of all Crusader’s related duties, which would have an undeniable impact on the team.
- A surprise captaincy selection. With Sam Whitelock absent, there were a number of options to take over the captaincy. Codie Taylor, jack Goodhue and Whetu Douglas have all been named as vice captains in the past, while David Havili captained Tasman to the Mitre 10 Cup this year. 2019 Player of the Year Scott Barrett has beaten them all.
- A big loss of experience? Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Ryan Crotty, Tim Bateman, Matt Todd, and Jordan Taufua have all moved on. For the mathematicians, that’s 923 Super Rugby caps lost.
- How do you replace them? It will be interesting to see if the Crusaders conveyor belt of talent continues. Openside flanker Sione Havili has been lured from the Auckland region, Mitch Hunt is replaced by NZ U20s rep Fergus Burke, but the rest of the incoming players aren’t names that are well recognised.
- The backline is still class – especially the back three. There will be hot competition for spots with Manasa Mataele back from injury to juke it out with George Bridge, Sevu Reece, David Havili, Will Jordan, and Leicester Faingaanuku.
- 15 new faces – the Highlanders have had to do the most recruiting of all the teams. Aaron Mauger has a rebuild job on his hands.
- Zane Kapeli is a quality signing. The Tongan hitman is a fearsome defender and will be a great addition to the Highlander’s style of play. Fellow loose forward Teariki Ben-Nicholas (Wellington) also deservingly gets a chance at Super Rugby, and is likely to see minutes as the back row from 2019 has been decimated. Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock, Elliot Dixon, and Jackson Hemopo have all departed.
- The Highlanders have shopped around the other teams. Outside back Michael Collins has come from the Blues, while winger Chris Kuridrani has been lured from the Reds. Utility Connor Garden-Bachop (younger brother of Jackson) travels down from Wellington, while loose forward Jesse Parete joins from the Chiefs. Mitch Hunt will battle with Josh Ioane and Bryn Gatland for the #10 jersey. Expect Ioane to have first shot.
- Put an asterisk next to new lock Manaaki Selby-Rickit’s name. He comes from a sporting background, with older sisters Te Paea and Te Huinga both playing representative netball, and father Hud Rickit an ex-All Black. However last month he pleaded guilty to injuring with reckless disregard and will reappear for sentencing this week. He’s one of only four locks, so the Highlanders will not want to lose him. However the public expectations regarding behaviour like this are very clear, and the consequences may rule him out completely.
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