Super Rugby 2017 season preview: New Zealand conference

Ngani Laumape of the Hurricanes celebrates his try against the Reds. Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The Super Rugby countdown has entered its final week with round one fast approaching. Here, we cast an eye over the New Zealand conference and try to pick a winner from the competition's toughest arena.

BLUES

Coach: Tana Umaga

Captain: Jerome Kaino

Last year: It was another fifth place finish for the Blues in the New Zealand conference but there were definite signs of improvement in Umaga's first year at the helm. They finished the year with eight wins, but could only manage one victory over fellow New Zealand opposition way back in the competition's opening week. Still, the rise of George Moala and Rieko Ioane into the All Blacks environment were positive individual stories while the wider squad can certainly build from a defence that finish last season ranked equal fourth.

This year: Having overseen the birth of Sonny Bill Williams' professional rugby career at Toulon, Umaga will again work with the cross-code superstar after luring him to Auckland. Still recovering from an Achilles injury, Aucklanders will have to be patient for their first glimpse of SBW with a return not pencilled in for some time. That will put the spotlight on another big offseason recruit, Augustine Pulu, and whether or not he can ease the pressure on Ihaia West at No.10. A problem at Eden Park virtually since Carlos Spencer's departure, West must deliver if the Blues are to return to the playoffs. The three-time champions have the quality elsewhere across the paddock - they just need the direction.

Draw: Rebels (A), Chiefs (A), Highlanders (H), Crusaders (A), Bulls (H), Force (H), Highlanders (A), Hurricanes (H), Bye, Brumbies (A), Waratahs (A), Cheetahs (H), Stormers (A), Chiefs (H), Reds (H), Bye, Sunwolves (A).

Greg Growden says: It all depends on when Sonny Bill is available. Word is that Williams will probably miss the first half the Super Rugby tournament due to his Achilles tendon problem, and by that stage the Blues' finals hopes could easily be over.

Tip: Last in conference

CHIEFS

Coach: Dave Rennie

Captains: Sam Cane/Aaron Cruden

Last year: Another strong Chiefs season came to an end in a hurry in Wellington in the semifinals, yet there was still plenty to be proud of as their attack flourished despite the sevens commitments of Sonny Bill Williams, Augustine Pulu and ongoing concussion battle of Charlie Ngatai. It's a good thing, too, as Williams and Pulu are now both at the Blues while Ngatai, worryingly, remains sidelined. Anton Lienert-Brown established himself as a Test-quality centre while the pack continued to set a fine platform for Aaron Cruden at fly-half. Aside from falling one game short of the final, the only other real negative were some unfavourable off-field headlines which tainted the once-revered Chiefs culture.

This year: It will be the final season in Hamilton for coach Rennie and veteran pivot Cruden with both men heading north to further their careers in Europe. That will no doubt provide added motivation for a third Super title, while there are a host of players in All Blacks selection battles for the looming British & Irish Lions series. With a tightening of their defence - they finished mid-table for that stat in 2016 - the Chiefs will again be among the contenders; particularly with Liam Messam and Tim Nanai-Williams back in the Waikato. A win in the Brisbane Global Tens has set the tone.

Draw: Highlanders (A), Blues (H), Hurricanes (H), Rebels (A), Bye, Bulls (H), Stormers (A), Cheetahs (A), Force (A), Sunwolves (H), Reds (H), Bye, Crusaders (H), Blues (H), Waratahs (H), Hurricanes (A), Brumbies (H).

Greg Growden says: Some notable names are leaving at the end of his competition, in particular their coach Dave Rennie and scrumhalf Aaron Cruden. So, there are reasons to want to succeed. The squad is strong, boosted by Tim Nanai-Williams and Liam Messam returning.

Tip: Conference winners, and Super Rugby tournament winners.

CRUSADERS

Coach: Scott Robertson

Captain: Sam Whitelock

Last year: Another strong Crusaders season finished in a quarterfinal exit at the hands of eventual finalists, the Lions. Todd Blackadder's side recorded 11 wins, but that was only good enough for fourth place in New Zealand and a tough trip to Johannesburg. Still, there were no shortage of positives in Christchurch as Richie Mo'unga did a fine job at fly-half following the departure of both Dan Carter and Colin Slade; Israel Dagg rediscovered his best form and back-rower Jordan Taufua produced performances good enough to see him included in All Blacks discussions.

This year: The times they have changed in Christchurch with Scott Robertson, a former Crusader himself, taking over from Todd Blackadder. Robertson's coaching record already has a nice look to it with trophies at World Under 20s and Mitre 10 Cup level, while he may be the slightly different character to Blackadder and, before that, Robbie Deans, the Crusaders have needed. He will be without All Blacks skipper Kieran Read for a month though, while Nemani Nadolo and Andy Ellis are two big offseason departures. Still, the Crusaders squad oozes quality and having drafted in five players from Canterbury's Mitre 10 Cup triumph, there is, as always, no shortage of depth either.

Draw: Brumbies (H), Highlanders (A), Reds (A), Blues (H), Force (H), Waratahs (A), Bye, Sunwolves (H), Stormers (H), Cheetahs (A), Bulls (A), Hurricanes (H), Chiefs (A), Rebels (A), Highlanders (H), Bye, Hurricanes (A).

Greg Growden says: A new coach in Scott Robertson, and the signing of former Wallaby Digby Ioane makes them an interesting proposition. They have under-performed in recent years, but a new regime could shake them out of their complacency.

Tip: Second in conference

HIGHLANDERS

Coach: Tony Brown

Captains: Ben Smith/Ash Dixon

Last year: The Highlanders produced a fine defence of their 2015 title but just like the Waratahs a season prior, they fell one game short of a return to the big dance. The recipe for success was largely the same, as the "Brotherhood" again ensured a workmanlike pack performed up front to provide the best possible ball for All Blacks stars Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo. The Highlanders also revealed some further backline talent in the likes of Matt Faddes and Rob Thompson while Liam Squire proved a superb back-row addition; the former Chief earning an All Blacks call-up alongside team-mate Elliot Dixon.

This year: The Highlanders, too, have a new coach at the helm with Otago favourite and former All Blacks No.10 Tony Brown replacing Jamie Joseph. The squad bares a similar look to 2016 however, giving Brown the same core spine the Highlanders have enjoyed for the last five or so years. Any concerns over Aaron Smith's headspace following last year's airport indiscretion were put to rest in a strong trial performance against the Waratahs; his All Blacks colleagues all enjoying a sharp hit-out. A four-game run against New Zealand competition could have a huge impact on their play-off hopes, negotiate that with a 3-1 return and they will be well set for the rest of the season.

Draw: Chiefs (H), Crusaders (H), Blues (A), Hurricanes (A), Brumbies (A), Rebels (H), Blues (H), Bye, Sunwolves (H), Stormers (H), Cheetahs (A), Bulls (A), Force (A), Waratahs (H), Crusaders (A), Bye, Reds (H).

Greg Growden says: Heading to Dunedin and confronting the scarfies in the crowd is not as daunting as it once was, and opponents are starting to work the Highlanders out. They will win their fair share, but shouldn't threaten.

Tip: Fourth in conference

HURRICANES

Coach: Chris Boyd Captain: Dane Coles

Last year: A maiden Super Rugby title was nothing less than the Hurricanes deserved in 2016. The perennial under-achievers, who'd been sunk at the final hurdle a season prior, topped the standings after the regular season and then kept their opponents tryless throughout the playoffs in a marvellous defensive effort to at last lift the trophy. While Beauden Barrett rightly received many of the plaudits for a breath-taking individual season, the Hurricanes' success was built on a complete team performance from numbers 1-23. A sometimes wayward lineout was the only blemish on an otherwise superb season in Wellington.

This year: Can the Hurricanes become the first team since the Chiefs in 2012/13 to go back to back? It's certainly not beyond the realms of possibility, but their first goal must be to top what will be another extremely tight New Zealand conference. The key cogs, Victor Vito aside, from last year's success remain although rising lock Vaea Fifita will miss a month following an ankle injury at the Brisbane Tens. In Barrett, they have the game's best player while there looks to be no gremlins in their draw -- they face only the Bulls in South Africa before a stop-off in Perth on the way home -- making two wins an attainable target. The looming British & Irish Lions series could present a distraction though that is the same for all five of New Zealand's franchises.

Draw: Sunwolves (A), Rebels (H), Chiefs (A), Highlanders (H), Bye, Reds (A), Waratahs (H), Blues (A), Brumbies (H), Bye, Stormers (H), Crusaders (A), Cheetahs (H), Bulls (A), Force (A), Chiefs (H), Crusaders (H).

Greg Growden says: The title-holders have suffered a major loss with the departure of Victor Vito. In their favour is that they have the world's best pivot in Beauden Barrett, who will this season be accompanied by his younger brother Jordie. They will threaten, but there are doubts over whether that will involve a successful tournament defence.

Tip: Third in conference