Before the start of Super Rugby 2016 we take a closer look at each of the sides in the competition. Next up, the Chiefs.
The two-time champions have some uncertainty surrounding this season as a global superstar juggles two forms of the game while experienced heads have moved on. On the positive side there is depth in some positions plus two crucial players return from their respective injuries. However, that news is offset by new signings Nepo Lauala and Mitch Karpik being ruled out for the season while Dominic Bird misses the early rounds.
Last year: Losing to the Highlanders in the Qualifying Round of the knockout stages ended the Chiefs' challenge in 2015, which was exactly the same time they dropped out of the competition twelve months previously. If the team was looking for plus points, Dave Rennie's charges did win two more matches in the regular-season, this despite losing star fly-half Aaron Cruden to a knee injury in Round 10. At that point in the season the Chiefs had won seven and lost just two of their games so it is fair to say the loss of Cruden contributed to the Chiefs' eventual downfall. That's not to say Damian and Marty McKenzie didn't do a good job, but the team missed Cruden's experience and know-how.
This year: The availability of Sonny Bill Williams is somewhat hazy but in Charlie Ngatai the Chiefs possess a reliable inside centre to get them going forward. His combination with Cruden and Seta Tamanivalu is going to be crucial if they are to supply their outside backs. It is very much a changing of the guard at the Chiefs as players such as Jamie Mackintosh, Ben Tameifuna, Liam Messam, Tim Nanai-Williams and Michael Fitzgerald move on so the new crop need to step up, especially with the Hurricanes and Highlanders looking so strong.
They kick off the season with a fair amount of travel as after going to an out-of-sorts Crusaders side in transition they host the Lions and then fly over to South Africa to face the Kings before continuing on to Argentina where the Jaguares lie in wait. There's no question this is a tough start before they face their rivals from Australasia but with Cruden steering the ship, they are capable of beating many.
Key players: Having fly-half Aaron Cruden back to full fitness is huge for the Chiefs and his form against the Blues in pre-season was a glaring reminder of his talent. Even more so than previous seasons he will be a leader of this team due to the departure of Liam Messam. Injury disrupted wing James Lowe's 2015 but he was going nicely up to that point so a big season from him wouldn't surprise us, with his scoring threat key to the Waikato team. Elsewhere in the side Sam Cane arguably has a bigger year in store for both franchise and country.
Players to watch: Scrum-half is certainly a position the Chiefs have talent, in fact we'd go as far to say they have the strongest trio to choose from in Brad Weber, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Augustine Pulu. Pulu will however miss the early season but Kerr-Barlow is a workmanlike nine while Weber is hugely under-rated so keep an eye on them. Michael Leitch meanwhile will be keen to back up his superb World Cup form alongside the likes of Cane and Johan Bardoul, especially now that new signing Karpik will miss 2016's season with a ruptured ACL.
Prospects: Injuries and departures could hurt more than many think and it could be a tough season for the Chiefs, especially with outfits such as the Highlanders and Hurricanes in great shape. Even the Blues have thrown down a marker in pre-season but if Cruden, Leitch and Lowe can hit top gear from the off, hopes of the play-offs will improve. Unfortunately though it looks like a rebuilding year in Hamilton.
Players in: Nepo Laulala (Crusaders), Atunaisa Moli (Waikato), Nathan Harris (injury returnee), Dominic Bird (Crusaders), Mitchell Karpik (Auckland), Tom Sanders (Canterbury), Taleni Seu (Auckland), Tawera Kerr-Barlow (injury returnee), Glen Fisiiahi (New Zealand Warriors), Toni Pulu (wider training squad), Chase Tiatia (Bay of Plenty), Sam McNicol (Hurricanes)
Players out: Jarrod Firth (Counties Manukau), Jamie Mackintosh (Southland), Ben Tameifuna (Racing 92), Quentin MacDonald (Blues), Rhys Marshall (wider training group), Brian Alainu'uese (Waikato), Michael Fitzgerald (Leicester Tigers), Matt Symons (London Irish), Mitchell Crosswell (Taranaki), Ross Filipo (Racing 92), Liam Messam (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Sean Polwart (Auckland), Liam Squire (Highlanders), Kayne Hammington (Manawatu), Hosea Gear (Clermont), Bryce Heem (Worcester Warriors), Tom Marshall (Gloucester), Tim Nanai-Williams (Ricoh Black Rams), Marty McKenzie (Crusaders)
Saturday, 27 February v Crusaders at AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Saturday, 5 March v Lions at FMG Stadium, Waikato
Saturday, 12 March v Kings at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Saturday, 19 March v Jaguares at Estadio José Amalfitani, Buenos Aires
Saturday, 26 March v Force at FMG Stadium, Waikato
Saturday, 2 April v Brumbies at GIO Stadium, Canberra
Friday, 8 April v Blues at FMG Stadium, Waikato
Round 8: BYE
Saturday, 23 April v Hurricanes at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Friday, 29 April v Sharks at Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth
Saturday, 7 May v Highlanders at FMG Stadium, Waikato
Round 12: BYE
Saturday, 21 May v Rebels at FMG Stadium, Waikato
Friday, 27 May v Waratahs at Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Friday, 1 July v Crusaders at ANZ National Stadium, Suva
Friday, 8 July v Reds at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Saturday, 16 July v Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin