New Zealand Super Rugby conference preview with Greg Growden

The Super Rugby season is once again upon us, with a full round of fixtures set down for the opening weekend of competition from February 15.

Here, we analyse the New Zealand conference and ESPN columnist Greg Growden offers his thoughts on each of the country's five franchises.

BLUES

Coach: Leon MacDonald

Captain: Blake Gibson/Patrick Tuipulotu

Last year: It feels like this has been written for a while, but 2018 was supposed to the year the Blues became a competitive franchise once more. It didn't eventuate, though, as the three-time champions were rocked by injuries to playmakers Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta, and many others across the squad. Dropping three out of their first four put them immediately in the mire, and they never climbed out. There were wins on the road over the Lions and Waratahs but otherwise very little to smile about, save for the performances of the Ioane brothers; Akira, in particular, a standout through the first half of the season. The Blues finished at 4-12 in 14th place, a record that brought about the promotion of Leon MacDonald, after Tana Umaga had survived a comprehensive review midway through the season. Curious.

This year: MacDonald's arrival in the City of Sails has whipped up a sense of optimism at the top of the north island, one further boosted by Auckland's drought-breaking Mitre 10 Cup triumph; Northland and North Harbour also had their moments in 2018. The Blues have also welcomed All Blacks great Ma'a Nonu back for one last crack at Super Rugby and have boosted their front-row with the acquisition of World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year, Karl Tu'inukuafe. But again the focus will fall on the No.10 jersey and whether Otere Black can deliver on the promise he showed in limited time with the Hurricanes. If he does - or Stephen Perofeta, equally, settles - then the list of quality further along the backline is breathtaking; the pack a nice blend of experience and youth up front. If they can negate a tricky start to the season that sees them face the Crusaders, and then Sharks and Jaguares on the road, a run of four straight games at home could really set their season alight.

Draw: Crusaders (H), Sharks (A), Jaguares (A), Sunwolves (H), Bye, Highlanders (H), Stormers, (H), Waratahs (H), Chiefs (A), Highlanders (A), Bye, Brumbies (A), Hurricanes (H), Chiefs (H), Crusaders (A), Bulls (H), Reds (A), Hurricanes (A)

Greg Growden says: When you have an attack that includes Sonny Bill Williams and now the 36-year-old Ma'a Nonu who has returned from Toulon, you would expect them to be a force. But no, elsewhere we have a squad accustomed to losing. The standards have slipped appreciably in recent years, but at least they realised some of the problems were off-field, demoting underperforming Tana Umaga to assistant coach, and trying Leon MacDonald as head coach. Good luck!

Predicted conference finish: Fifth

CHIEFS

Coach: Colin Cooper

Captain: Sam Cane/Brodie Retallick

Last year: While they failed to make it past week one of the finals, there was much to like in the Chiefs' 2018 season. Colin Cooper's return to Super Rugby as coach for the first time in eight years brought about an 11-5 season which, thanks to the lopsided competition structure, earned them a trip to Wellington to face the Hurricanes, despite those teams having the third and second best records respectively. The standout, of course, was Damian McKenzie. Having moved to first-five from fullback, McKenzie made a seamless return to the position he occupied as a schoolboy. He was however playing behind a pack that laid a wonderful platform; Brodie Retallick broke tackles, Sam Cane forced turnovers and the entire forward unit drove what was the best set-piece of the competition. Solomon Alaimalo then put the X-factor on out wide with some sublime running, both on the counter and from phase ball.

This year: The Chiefs will be without Cane for at least the first few months of the season after the All Blacks flanker suffered a serious neck injury in the Rugby Championship clash with the Springboks in Johannesburg. The Chiefs, along with the other NZ franchises, will have to navigate twin rest weeks for their All Blacks, meaning McKenzie, Retallick, Nepo Laulala, Angus Ta'avao, Anton Lienert-Brown and Nathan Harris will all be sidelined at multiple points across the season. Cooper has done his best to safeguard the No.10 jersey by adding Australian Jack Debreczeni as five-eighth cover alongside Tiaan Falcon and Marty McKenzie, while Cane's absence will be covered by Mitchell Karpik, Tyler Ardron and Mitchell Brown. A seven-week slog, including a tour of South Africa and Argentina, to start the season will say a lot about whether the Chiefs are contenders or not, and will be a measure of Cooper's planning. They have the depth to contend once again, but the all-important top seed may be a stretch once more.

Draw: Highlanders (H), Brumbies (A), Sunwolves (H), Crusaders (A), Hurricanes (H), Bulls (A), Jaguares (A), Bye, Blues (H), Lions (H), Hurricanes (A), Highlanders (A), Sharks (H), Blues (A), Reds (H), Crusaders (H), Bye, Rebels (A).

Greg Growden says: This could be the Chiefs' slippery slide year. They have gradually deteriorated in recent times, and lost the core of their team. The 2019 departures will hit hard, as it includes Liam Messam, Tim Nanai-Williams and Charlie Ngatai- all to France. The erratic Jack Debreczeni from the Rebels is one of their few recruits, putting extra pressure on Damian McKenzie to perform at No 10. Etene Nanai-Seturo may save them out wide, though.

Predicted conference finish: Fourth

CRUSADERS

Last year: You know the drill. There was no stopping the Crusaders as they made it back-to-back Super Rugby titles under the stewardship of Scott Robertson, the final triumph coming at home to the Lions in a match they controlled from start to finish. A virtual first-string All Blacks forward pack rumbled over the top of opponents all year, allowing Richie Mo'unga the time and space he needed to spearhead the attack and leave All Blacks fans outside of Wellington, and Taranaki for that matter, demanding he take over from Beauden Barrett as the All Blacks No.10. The Crusaders only real slip-up, if you can call it that, was giving the Waratahs a 29-point headstart at home midway through the year. Still, they fought their way back - amid some refereeing howlers - to record one of the Super Rugby's great comeback victories. A second title for Robertson put him firmly in All Blacks coaching consideration but that narrative has since shifted towards Ian Foster, and now seems to be pegging Robertson for a move overseas.

This year: Is this it for Robertson in the red-and-black, then? Heading north after three straight titles would be some way to bow out, and make him arguably Super Rugby's greatest ever coach. It would be his biggest achievement yet, particularly given the balancing act he must do with his many All Blacks. That begins with skipper Sam Whitelock and All Blacks captain Kieran Read sitting out the first month of action - Codie Taylor too - with the trio then still having to fulfil two further rest weeks. The backline will also be hit hard but Robertson has such wonderful cover at his disposal, highlighted by the development of recent All Blacks cap Brett Cameron. The Crusaders have made a habit of winning the close ones under Robertson, and overcame a horror run with injury to lift their then eighth title in 2017. In short, they clearly respond to his methods and would love nothing more than to make it a hat trick of titles. The first part of the season could be tricky and they have only seven homes games, but they are again the team to beat.

Draw: Blues (A), Hurricanes (H), Reds (A), Chiefs (H), Highlanders (A), Waratahs (A), Hurricanes (A), Brumbies (H), Highlanders (H), Bye, Sharks (H) Lions (H), Bulls (A), Stormers (A), Blues (H), Chiefs, (A), Rebels (H), Bye.

Greg Growden says: The obvious tip is to say the Crusaders are out to cruise to their third straight Super Rugby title. They remain a class above all else, having close to the same squad that won last year's championship. The only substantial loss is Wyatt Crockett, but the depth up front is considerable. As importantly the Crusaders boast two capable playmakers- Richie Mo'unga and Brett Cameron. Prepare yourself for another loony celebration dance from Crusaders coach Scott Robertson on finals night.

Predicted conference finish: First

HIGHLANDERS

Coach: Aaron Mauger

Captain: Ben Smith/Luke Whitelock

Last year: The Highlanders enjoyed a fine season under first-year coach Aaron Mauger, but were another New Zealand franchise left to lament Super Rugby's conference system. Boasting the fourth best record overall, but fourth in New Zealand, the Highlanders were forced across the ditch to Sydney for a quarterfinal. Up 23-6 at halftime, they looked destined for the semifinals. But a moment of indiscipline from All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo gave the Waratahs a sniff, and 10 minutes later it was all NSW. The Highlanders, much like their fellow Kiwi franchises, were happy to play without the ball in making the most tackles of any team in the competition; but their lineout was a huge concern, the worst of any team, in fact.

This year: A huge part of their extended playoff run, the Highlanders have waved goodbye to fly-half Lima Sopoaga and thus have a significant void to fill in the No. 10 jersey. Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane and returned cult hero, Marty Banks, are all in contention, with Gatland moving south after a couple of indifferent seasons with the Blues. Again, the axis of the team will be Aaron and Ben Smith, with Luke Whitelock the talisman of what is again a workmanlike pack. Waisake Naholo and Liam Squire add the x-factor, both men with a real point to prove after seemingly slipping down the All Blacks pecking order. The Highlanders can set themselves up for success early, only having to leave New Zealand once in the first 10 weeks of the competition. But much will depend on Mauger's ability to juggle his squad and maximise the return on the Smiths, so much of the 'Landers game relies on the devastating attacking duo.

Draw: Chiefs (A), Reds (H), Rebels (A), Hurricanes (A), Crusaders (H), Blues (A), Bye, Hurricanes (H), Crusaders (A), Blues (H), Sunwolves (A), Chiefs (H), Jaguares (H), Lions (A), Stormers (A), Bye, Bulls (H), Waratahs (H).

Greg Growden says: The loss of No. 10 Lima Sopoaga to Wasps will seriously dent then Highlanders, but Marty Banks and Bryn Gatland at least provide some sort of playmaker cover. They will again rely heavily on the two Smiths- Aaron and Ben- to provide some consistency and direction. This is a no-frills, functional bunch, which will probably not startle, but no doubt cause endless upsets during the season.

Predicted conference finish: Third

HURRICANES

Coach: John Plumtree

Captain: Dane Coles

Last year: The brilliance of Beauden Barrett, never-say-die ball-carrying of Ardie Savea and Ben Lam's try-scoring highlighted another stellar Hurricanes season, albeit one the Crusaders ended at the semifinal stage. The 2016 champions again played some sparkling attacking rugby but, interestingly, went to the boot more often than any other side in Super Rugby. But they seemed to lose their way late in the competition, a patchy home win over the Reds preceding a run when they lost three of their final four games. They steadied, just, to defeat the Chiefs back at home in the quarterfinals but were no match for the Crusaders a week later, bringing coach Chris Boyd's three-year tenure to an end.

This year: John Plumtree is finally a Super Rugby head coach in New Zealand, after stints as an assistant around the globe and as the top dog with the Sharks in South Africa. There is no Brad Shields but that leadership void is plugged with the return of Dane Coles, who has endured a horror run with injury and concussion over the last two seasons. On paper, the Hurricanes again look to have a squad tailor-made for Super Rugby; a big, mobile pack and a backline that is chock-full of attacking weapons that often even extend to the bench. Look for a strong season from Vaea Fifita as he tries to convince All Blacks selectors he's a No. 6 while the fast-feet of Nehe Milner-Skudder and Matt Proctor have already been confirmed for exit row at season's end, adding further motivation for this ridiculously talented squad. Whether Plumtree can add the "grind" aspect that the Crusaders have brought to the competition remains to be seen; being prepared to really work for wins through the middle, in unfavourable conditions, is what the Canes must do to return to Super Rugby's summit.

Draw: Waratahs (A), Crusaders (A), Brumbies (H), Highlanders (H), Chiefs (A), Stormers (H), Crusaders (H), Highlanders (A), Bye, Sunwolves (A), Chiefs (H), Rebels (H), Blues (A), Jaguares (H), Bye, Sharks (A), Lions (A), Blues (H).

Greg Growden says: They are understandably getting sick of endlessly finishing second to the Crusaders, which must grate as they have the players to end the domination. This season it will be even more difficult to overcome the Crusader crash as they will be without Brad Shields and Julian Savea. So it could easily be another season sitting in the shadows, producing great performances but failing in the final weeks. At least new head coach John Plumtree will give them a hard edge.

Predicted conference finish: Second