Super Rugby New Zealand conference scouting report

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Blues

There aren't the big arrivals from this time last year, though Tana Umaga may be feeling a tad more comfortable given Sonny Bill Williams looks to be training the house down instead of working away in Team Rehab. But fly-half looks to be the problem area again, particularly after star signing Otere Black suffered an ACL injury during the Mitre 10 Cup. Still, Bryn Gatland has shown early promise and those who caught a glimpse of Taranaki will have been impressed by Stephen Perofeta, though he will now miss the first month of the competition with a broken hand.

Forwards: Leni Apisai, Matt Moulds, James Parsons, Alex Hodgman, Sione Mafileo, Pauliasi Manu, Isaac Salmon, Mike Tamoaieta, Ofa Tuungafasi, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Josh Goodhue, Scott Scrafton, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jimmy Tupou, Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane, Jerome Kaino, Dalton Papalii, Glenn Preston, Kara Pryor, Murphy Taramai,

Backs: Sam Nock, Augustine Puli, Jonathan Ruru, Otere Black/Daniel Kirkpatrick, Bryn Gatland, Stephen Perofeta, Matt Johnson, George Moala, Tamati Tua, TJ Faiane, Sonny Bill Williams, Caleb Clarke, Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, Rieko Ioane, Melanie Nanai, Jordan Trainor.

Outs: Epalahame Faiva, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Matt Moulds, Brandon Nansen, Sam Prattley, Patrick Tuipulotu, Billy Guyton, Matt Vaega, Rene Ranger, Ihaia West, Piers Francis. Declan O'Donnell.

Ins: Leni Apisai, Caleb Clarke, Matt Johnson, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Dalton Papalii, Glenn Preston, Jonathan Ruru, Isaac Salmon, Mike Tamoaieta, Tamati Tua.

Big in: Dalton Papalii. While not an 'in' in the way that he has arrived from another club or province, Papalii is a new full-time addition to the Blues squad after graduating from a training contract. A member of the victorious Baby Blacks side that romped to the Under-20 world title in Georgia, the loose forward's inclusion will help to cover the injury cloud over now-All Black Blake Gibson, though Murphy Taramai and Kara Pryor are also excellent options.

Big out: The Blues saw a chunk of All Blacks talent depart after last season, but it's Steven Luatua's shift to Europe that is of the biggest consequence. Seemingly in the prime of his career, Luatua made the decision midway through last season -- much to the disappointment of All Blacks management. A marvellous ball-carrier with a real feel for the game, Luatua had established himself as one of Super Rugby's premier back-rowers with ability to cover both No. 6 and No. 8.

Chiefs

There will be a different feel about "The Tron" in 2018 as Colin Cooper steps into the seemingly bottomless shoes of Dave Rennie. The former NZ Maori coach won't be able to call on the likes of Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron and James Lowe, either, given the three club stalwarts are all now plying their trades up north. Greater responsibility will likely fall to Damian McKenzie; now an established All Black, McKenzie will need to command the backline whether at fullback or fly-half. Brad Weber's return -- he missed the entirety of last season with a knee injury -- offsets some of the pain from Kerr-Barlow's departure.

Forwards: Aidan Ross, Atunaisa Moli, Kane Hames, Mitchell Graham, Nepo Laulala, Sosefo Kautai, Liam Polwart, Nathan Harris, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Fin Hoeata, Michael Allardice, Lachlan Boshier, Liam Messam, Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Brown, Mitchell Karpik, Sam Cane, Taleni Seu, Tyler Ardron.

Backs: Brad Weber, Jonathan Taumateine, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Damian McKenzie, Marty McKenzie, Tiaan Falcon, Alex Nankivell, Anton Lienert-Brown, Charlie Ngatai, Johnny Faauli, Regan Verney, Tim Nanai-Williams, Levi Aumua, Sam McNicol, Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo, Toni Pulu.

Ins: Tyler Ardron, Levi Aumua, Tiaan Falcon, Fin Hoeata, Luke Jacobson, Marty McKenzie, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Regan Verney.

Outs: Aaron Cruden, Finlay Christie, Stephen Donald, Hika Elliot, Glen Fisiiahi, Tawera Kerr- Barlow, Michael Leitch, James Lowe, Tom Sanders, Chase Tiatia, James Tucker.

Big in: Tiaan Falcon. While Damian McKenzie may yet switch to No.10 -- brother Marty is also an option -- the Chiefs have picked up New Zealand Under-20s fly-half Tiaan Falcon. The Australian-born playmaker has also enjoyed some time in the Mitre 10 Cup with Hawke's Bay, playing alongside Brad Weber, which could swing things his way should Cooper opt to keep Damian McKenzie in the No. 15 jersey.

Big out: Take your pick. It's hard to nominate just one key loss given the mass exodus of quality but for sheer enthusiasm and entertainment factor the absence of James Lowe will be felt keenly across the Waikato. Lowe's combination with McKenzie in the back three was, at times, mesmerizing; the duo seemingly connected on another level given some of the passes and running lines they were able to execute. We'll all miss that smile, too. Lowe always seemed to be having fun.

Crusaders

Given they return in 2018 as the defending champions, its' little surprise the Crusaders organisation has a stable look about it. Scott Robertson, who claimed the title in his first year in charge, does have a few injury concerns to worry about -- headlined by All Blacks captain Kieran Read, who underwent back surgery late last year. The front-row also looks light, particularly given Joe Moody and Owen Franks could miss more than half the regular season.

Forwards: Michael Alaalatoa, Scott Barrett, Ethan Blackadder, Wyatt Crockett, Mitchell Dunshea, , Ben Funnell, Owen Franks, Billy Harmon, Oliver Jager, Andrew Makalio, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Pete Samu, Tom Sanders, Quinten Strange, Jordan Taufua, Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, Sam Whitelock.

Backs: Tim Bateman, George Bridge, Ryan Crotty, Israel Dagg, Mike Delany, Mitchell Drummond, Braydon Ennor , Jack Goodhue, Bryn Hall, , David Havili, Mitchell Hunt, Will Jordan, Jone Macilai, Manasa Mataele, Richie Mo'unga, Jack Stratton, Seta Tamanivalu.

Ins: Ethan Blackadder, Mike Delany, Braydon Ennor, Billy Harmon, Will Jordan, Tom Sanders, Jack Stratton.

Outs: Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Jed Brown, Leon Fukofuka, Sione Fifita, Digby Ioane, Marty McKenzie, Sean Wainui.

Big in: It can never hurt to have too much depth, and that's exactly what the Crusaders have at fullback this year. While Israel Dagg and David Havili are world-class options -- the former likely to be considered on the wing, too -- Junior World Player of the Year nominee Will Jordan is a superb pick-up. Jordan was another of the stars of the Baby Blacks in Georgia before he showed his class at senior level for Tasman in the Mitre 10 Cup.

Big out: It's not a major loss given the presence of All Blacks five-eighth-in-waiting Richie Mo'unga and rising star Mitchell Hunt, but Marty McKenzie's decision to head north sees the Crusaders lose a little versatility. They have, however, picked up veteran Mike Delaney, who will offer cover should the absolute worst situation arise in which Mo'unga and Hunt both go down with long-term injuries.

Highlanders

While there is stability in Christchurch, there has been a fair turnover in personnel down the road in Dunedin. It's not at the critical point yet -- that may come when Lima Sopoaga signs off at the end of this year -- but the Highlanders will miss the likes of Shane Christie, Gareth Evans, Joe Wheeler and Patrick Osborne, who have all played a key part in the franchise's success alongside some bigger names. A couple of fresh faces will be of interest to Australian fans in Tyrel Lomax, who played Under-20s and Australia Schools, and Shannon Frizell, who is the brother of Dragons NRL star Tyson.

Forwards: Alex Ainley, Liam Coltman, Josh Dickson, Ash Dixon, Elliot Dixon, Tom Franklin, Shannon Frizell, Jackson Hemopo, Dillon Hunt, James Lentjes, Tevita Li, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Tyrel Lomax, Guy Millar, Pari Pari Parkinson, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Dan Pryor, Aki Seiuli, Liam Squire, Siate Tokolahi, Patelesio Tomkinson, Kalolo Tuiloma, Luke Whitelock.

Backs: Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Josh Ioane, Kayne Hammington, Josh McKay, Tevita Nybura, Waisake Naholo, Josh Renton, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Fletcher Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Rob Thompson, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Teihorangi Walden.

Ins: Shannon Frizell, Josh Ioane, Tyrel Lomax, Josh McKay, Tevita Nabura, Pari Pari Parkinson, Kalolo Tuiloma, Thomas Umaga-Jensen.

Outs: Shane Christie, Jason Emery, Gareth Evans, Malakai Fekitoa, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Craig Millar, Patrick Osborne, Hayden Parker, Joe Wheeler.

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Big in: Thomas Umaga-Jensen. Does that surname ring a bell? It should, given Umaga-Jensen and his equally gifted twin, Peter, are nephews of Blues coach and former All Blacks skipper Tana Umaga. Powerfully built at a touch under 190cm and 110kg, Umaga-Jensen will add plenty of starch to a midfield that is now without Malakai Fekitoa.

Big out: Malakai Fekitoa wasn't at his absolute best in 2017 but he had certainly made himself a fan favourite at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Crunching hits in defence and hard, line-breaking running in attack meant there were few games in which he didn't make some sort of impact. The Highlanders still have plenty of fine attacking talent in the likes of Aaron and Ben Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Tevita Li and the speedy Matt Faddes, but their backline without Fekitoa in midfield will take some time adjusting to.

Hurricanes

Super Rugby champions two years ago, the Hurricanes again have the squad to push for the title in 2018. Coach Chris Boyd has managed to retain all of his key All Blacks, though it is well known the tireless Brad Shields will move on after this season and push his Test claims with England. There have been some minor departures, the most noticeable probably former All Blacks winger Cory Jane, and the squad is no doubt hurting for Otere Black, who will miss the entire season after switching to the Blues. Mark Abbott, Loni Uhila and Callum Gibbons will be missed as they were always honest performers up front.

Forwards: Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli, Chris Eves, Alex Fidow, Reg Goodes, Ben May, Toby Smith, Jeffery To'omaga-Allen, James Blackwell, Murray Douglas, Michael Fatialofa, Sam Lousi, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Gareth Evans, Vaea Fifita, Sam Henwood, Reed Prinsep, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Blade Thomson.

Backs: Jamie Booth, Finlay Christie, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Jackson Garden-Bachop, TJ Va'a, Ihaia West, Vince Aso, Ngani Laumape, Matt Proctor, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Jordie Barrett, Wes Goosen, Ben Lam, Jonah Lowe, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea.

Ins: Asafo Aumua, Jamie Booth, Finlay Christie, Murray Douglas, Gareth Evans, Alex Fidow, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Sam Henwood, Toby Smith, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Ihaia West.

Outs: Pita Ahki, Mark Abbott, Otere Black, James Broadhurst, Geoffrey Cridge, Callum Gibbons, Toa Halafili, Cory Jane, Mike Kainga, Kylem O'Donnell, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Loni Uhila.

Big in: He was around the squad at times last year, but Asafo Aumua is now a fully fledged Hurricanes player -- and one sure to leave an imprint on Super Rugby in 2018. One of the stars of the Junior World Championship, Aumua scored three tries in the victory over England in the final. He then returned home to star for Wellington as they returned to the Mitre 10 Cup premiership with a victory over Bay of Plenty. The hooker, who has the speed of the back, takes some stopping in open play but the set-piece will be where he is judged. He was deemed good enough to fill the All Blacks' development player role on last year's spring tour, however, so he can't be too bad.

Big out: He was forced to play second fiddle to Ardie Savea much of the time, but Callum Gibbons did a fine job deputising for the All Blacks flanker when called upon. A rugged, over-the-ball type of back-rower, Gibbons was a major threat at the breakdown and never shirked any defensive work about the paddock either. He saw limited playing time last season, but he proved himself a key squad member in the runner's-up finish from 2015 and the Canes' title triumph a year later.