Ahead of the 2017 Super Rugby season we take a closer look at each of the 18 teams participating. First up, the Blues.
On first glance, the Blues’ 2016 season might be considered a disappointment, when in actual fact the Auckland-based outfit won eight of their fifteen matches – making it their most successful season in five years.
A mixed season for Tana Umaga’s side then, but certainly less disappointing than their position at bottom of the New Zealand Conference suggests. There is no harder group to play in after all.
The side have not been Super Rugby champions since 2003 and are unlikely to change that this year. But, making the quarter-finals would be a more achievable goal, though this still poses significant challenge given the Blues have not qualified since 2011.
Last Year: The Blues played some good rugby last season, but it was not enough to get out of the most competitive conference in Super Rugby.
It was the Blues’ form against other New Zealand teams that let them down in 2016. The side won just one of the six encounters with their compatriots, leaving them bottom of the New Zealand conference and out of the quarter finals.
Unfortunately for the Blues, they are in the toughest conference, and were the only New Zealand side not to qualify last season. At least the team improved on their 2015 result, which saw them win only three matches and finish fourteenth.
Outside of the New Zealand conference, Tana Umaga’s men had considerably more success, only losing one game. Particularly impressive were their wins over the Brumbies and Waratahs that allowed the Blues to finish the season on a high.
Jerome Kaino and Piers Francis played a big part in these victories in the pack and backline respectively, and in fact both players performed well all season. Kaino was key in the set piece and racked up six tries in his 13 appearances, while Francis, who previously played for Edinburgh, impressed so much in his debut season that he was awarded Rookie of the Year.
This Year: The Blues will look to build on the momentum they gathered towards the end of last season.
The new coaching set-up involving Steve Jackson – who has already worked with head coach Tana Umaga at Counties Manukau – and the high quantity of experienced players looks promising. Players who have stuck with the side this year have an average of 29 Super Rugby caps for the Blues.
The pack is where most of the experience lies, comprising current All Blacks Charlie Faumuina, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jerome Kaino and Steven Luatua.
On the other end of the scale, many of the new recruits are from Auckland. Umaga will hope this can bring some much-needed passion and pride in the Blues’ jersey back to their game.
With 15 Samoans in the squad, emotions will also run high for the Blues’ match in Samoa this June- the first Super Rugby game to be played in the country. A win here will be important in the Blues’ final game before their bye and the international window.
Given that under the current structure the Blues cannot qualify for the quarter finals if they finish last in the New Zealand Conference, early games against the Chiefs, Highlanders and Crusaders in March will be crucial.
Key players: Piers Francis will most likely stand in for Sonny Bill Williams at inside centre until the cross-code star returns from injury, though Francis has made it clear he wants the number ten jersey this year. Either way, Umaga will hope Francis continues to shine in the backline, aided by his Counties Manukau teammate Augustine Pulu.
If those two can produce the raw but highly talented Melani Nanai and Rieko Ioane then the Blues can produce fireworks, in a backline that packs quite a punch. Jerome Kaino also has to stay fit if the Blues are to upset the order.
Players to watch: All eyes will be on Sonny Bill Williams once he returns from injury, about six weeks into the season. If the All Black is as explosive on the other side of a ruptured Achilles, he’ll make a huge impact at centre.
Utility back Michael Collins is back in New Zealand after a stint at Scarlets, where he made such an impression that head coach Wayne Pivac asked him to stay in Wales.
Augustine Pulu is another important signing for a side in need of scrum halves. Reunited with Tana Umaga, his coach at Counties Manukau, he brings a different style to the Blues’ backline.
Prospects: They’ve recruited well, but making it out of such a competitive conference is still a big ask for the Blues. They’ll need an extremely strong start to the season to have any chance of qualifying.
Players In: Josh Goodhue (Northland), Jimmy Tupou (Crusaders), Alex Hodgman (Crusaders), Sonny Bill Williams (Chiefs), Augustine Pulu (Chiefs), Pauliasi Manu (Chiefs), Epalahame Faiva (Waikato), Brandon Nansen (North Harbour), Murphy Taramai (North Harbour), Michael Collins (Otago), Declan O’Donnell (Taranaki), Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki)
Players Out: Nic Mayhew (Brumbies), Namatahi Waa (Northland), Quentin MacDonald (Oyonnax), Josh Bekhuis (Lyon), Hoani Matenga (Wellington), Joe Edwards (Auckland), Tanerau Latimer (Bayonne), Jack Ram (Northland), Bryn Hall (Crusaders), Matt McGahan (North Harbour), Male Sa’u (Yamaha Júbilo), Afa Fa’atau (North Harbour), Ben Lam (Hurricanes), Tevita Li (Highlanders), Michael Little (North Harbour), Lolagi Visinia (Auckland)
Thursday, February 23 v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, March 3 v Chiefs (FMG Stadium, Waikato)
Saturday, March 11 v Highlanders (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, March 17 v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, March 25 v Bulls (QBE Stadium, Auckland)
Saturday, April 1 v Force (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, April 8 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr, Dunedin)
Saturday, April 15 v Hurricanes (Eden Park, Auckland)
Round 9: BYE
Sunday, April 30 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, May 6 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Friday, May 12 v Cheetahs (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, May 19 v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Friday, May 26 v Chiefs (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, June 2 v Reds (Apia Park, Samoa)
Round 16: BYE
Saturday, July 15 v Sunwolves (Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, Tokyo)