With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon we take a look at each of the fifteen competitors. Next up, the Hurricanes!
After upsetting all the pre-season predictions last year, the Hurricanes will be looking to take another step forward and claim a place in the play-offs in 2013.
Last Year: Most predicted doom and gloom. The departure of a large chunck of the team's senior players left the 'Canes looking short on experience and firepower... but how Mark Hammett and his boys proved us wrong! The Hurricanes finished eighth overall and third in the New Zealand conference - one place better than the year before on both counts - but even more surprisingly was they were the tournament's top try-scorers by a mile, touching down 58 times! (The Bulls were next best with 50 while the eventually winners the Chiefs, who played two more games, only bagged 47).
Conrad Smith and Julian Savea were absolutely brilliant, producing more blinders than we have space to mention. Tim Bateman admirably filled the gap left by Ma'a Nonu's move north and Andre Taylor was a try magnet, finishing as the joint top try-scorer with 10, just one more than Savea. Beauden Barrett was also a revelation at fly-half. Victory in the last round against the champions-to-be showed just how good the 'Canes were. In retrospect, defeats at home to the Cheetahs and Brumbies ultimately cost them a place in the play-offs.
This year: Fans in Wellington will be hoping for more of the same...with a few extra points to make the play-off cut. It looks an achievable goal since the majority of the squad remains intact. All Blacks prop Ben Franks is a massive addition to the team in every sense of the word but the loss of Cory Jane to a season-ending knee injury is equally significant. The key to this competition has become winning your nation derbies and the 'Canes finish with clashes away to the Chiefs and Crusaders the final three weeks, with the Highlanders coming to the Cake Tin in between. Those three weeks will be decisive.
Players to watch: Lock/loose forward Blade Thomson, who was part of New Zealand's 2010 IRB Junior World Championship-winning team and versatile James Marshall, who was Taranaki "Back of the Year" for 2012, are quality newcomers to the squad, adding the 'depth' that everyone loves talking about. Samoan-born loose forward Ardie Savea is the younger brother of All Black winger Julian. If his arrival on the scene is anything like his brother's, 'Canes fans are in for a treat. Of course, the key man is skipper Conrad Smith, who was easily the world's best 13 in 2012.
Noteworthy signings: Ben Franks (Crusaders), Serge Lilo (Wellington), James Marshall (Taranaki). Ardie Savea (Wellington), Eric Sione (Wellington), Blade Thomson (Taranaki)
Noteworthy losses: Michael Bent (Leinster), Chris Eaton, Jayden Hayward (Force), Daniel Kirkpatrick (Castres), Charlie Ngatai (Chiefs)
Prospects: The draw isn't too bad since the tour of South Africa only involves two games and winning in Bloemfontein is more than possible. The opening four weeks are tough however as they include a trip to Brisbane and a clash with the Crusaders. If they can get over those initial hurdles, and still have gas left for a push in the late-season derbies mentioned above, then a place in the play-offs is on the cards.
Sat 23 Feb: v Blues - Home
Fri 1 Mar: v Reds - Away
Fri 8 Mar: v Crusaders - Home
Fri 15 Mar: v Highlanders - Away
Sat 30 Mar: v Kings - Home
Sat 6 Apr: v Waratahs - Home
Sat 13 Apr: v Blues - Away
Fri 19 Apr: v Western Force - Home
Fri 26 Apr: v Stormers - Home (Palmerston North)
Sun 5 May: v Bulls - Away
Sat 11 May: v Cheetahs - Away
Fri 17 May: v Chiefs - Home
Fri 31 May: v Brumbies - Away
Fri 28 Jun: v Chiefs- Away
Sat 6 Jul: v Highlanders - Home
Fri 12 Jul: v Crusaders- Away