Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021 preview: Can anyone end the Crusaders' dynasty?

Super Rugby Aotearoa earned rave reviews in its inaugural 2020 season, and there is little to suggest the second edition will be any less captivating.

As far as 2021 goes, the volatile COVID-19 climate offers no guarantees for anyone.

Attendances could be limited at various junctures, as the next outbreak lurks.

Disruption will be par for the course - just ask the Blues after Auckland's snap three-day lockdown last week which halted training and forced the cancellation of their preseason match against the Crusaders at Eden Park.

Barring any further COVID setbacks we can, however, expect to witness some of the best, competitive rugby on the planet, with last season's forced Super Rugby reset confirming the compelling nature New Zealand derbies produce.

Nine of last season's 19 completed matches were decided by seven points or fewer - six of those by no more than three.

While the Crusaders start warm favourties to clinch Scott Robertson's fifth successive title, similarly tight-fought contests will be the prevailing theme again this year.

That's because this year's landscape begins much the same as the last - only with the Blues losing Beauden Barrett to Japan; likewise the Hurricanes with their co-captain TJ Perenara taking a season out to chase the yen and leave a huge hole in the 'Canes halves.

Even without Barrett, on paper the Blues should have the best chance of challenging the Crusaders, with Leon MacDonald assembling serious depth in his forward pack that will enable his team to play multiple ways.

Super Rugby Aotearoa's main changes come in the form of a final - and two polarising rule trials; the introduction of a captain's challenge and goal-line drop outs when an attacking player is held up or a kick is grounded by the defending team.

Both tweaks are likely to bring varied, unintended consequences that will only be truly evident once coaches and players figure out how to manipulate situations to their benefit.

Last season's early SRA rounds, played in front of sell-out crowds following lockdown, were blighted by a crackdown at the breakdown as referees dished out a raft of penalties in attempts to create quicker, cleaner possession.

Hopefully this season starts on a smoother note where the players, not the whistle, drive talking points, of which there are many.

Warren Gatland's homecoming was a disaster last year as the Chiefs lost all eight SRA matches. They were, on occasions, hamstrung by refereeing blunders but Gatland's successful defensive blueprint in Wales jarred with the Chiefs' inherent attacking flair.

With Gatland committed to the British & Irish Lions series against the Springboks this year -- wherever that may end up being held, if at all -- Bay of Plenty and New Zealand Maori coach Clayton McMillan steps into his void.

When Gatland returns in 2022, McMillan will revert to an assistant role. In the interim how McMillan's philosophies shape the Chiefs, who carry a chip on their shoulder into this season, offer but one subplot.

Up the road and over the Bombay Hills the Blues have recruited strongly by luring All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala and one-test openside flanker Dillon Hunt, the latter among the best defenders in the country while at the Highlanders.

No one replaces a world-class attacking threat such as Barrett but the Blues used the All Blacks playmaker at fullback more than first-five last year. Reverting to Otere Black should, therefore, not require a major adjustment.

With recent All Blacks Caleb Clarke, Hoskins Sotutu and the Ioane brothers, Rieko and Akira, the Blues do not lack attacking firepower. The addition of talented rookies Zarn Sullivan and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens sets up a tantalising battle for the fullback role with Stephen Perofeta, too.

In Wellington the primary concern is how to fill the gaping holes left by Barrett and Perenara in successive years.

At halfback the Hurricanes are forced to turn to rookies Luke Campbell and Jonathan Taumateine while Jackson Garden-Bachop will assume the first-five duties after diminutive veteran Simon Hickey, back from five years abroad, suffered a season-ending knee injury during preseason.

Ardie Savea assumes the Hurricanes captaincy, as Dane Coles approaches his potentially final Super campaign, and he does so alongside brother Julian after his return from France.

Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape must play influential roles if the Hurricanes manage to remain in the mix, while Salesi Rayasi appears primed to make his mark on the edge after scoring 14 tries in 10 games for Auckland during the provincial season.

Further south the Crusaders remain, well, the vaunted Crusaders though their depth will be tested with centre Braydon Ennor and back-up hooker Andrew Makalio out for the season. All Blacks wing George Bridge (one month) and loose forward Tom Sanders (two months) will also miss significant chunks.

As long as Richie Mo'unga stays fit, however, the Crusaders remain odds on for another title. A pack that includes All Blacks Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Cullen Grace and Joe Moody certainty aids the red-and-black's cause.

The only other question is whether Tamati Ellison replacing former Welsh wing Mark Jones in the Crusaders coaching staff will have an impact either way.

Further south, Tony Brown's promotion to lead the Highlanders for the next two seasons - after Aaron Mauger was let go - is the final piece of the New Zealand puzzle.

With only two current All Blacks - Aaron Smith and Shannon Frizell - on his books, Brown faces a difficult task. That's always the story with the Highlanders, though. And every year they find ways to compete.

With Brown at the helm, expect their creative kicking game to come to the fore.

Liam Squire's return from Japan, after last featuring for the All Blacks prior to the 2019 World Cup, is highly anticipated.

Kazuki Himeno, the loose forward who starred in Japan's World Cup campaign, should suit the expressive New Zealand style. Solomon Alaimalo's switch from the Chiefs also adds notable strike to their outside backs.

The Highlanders have early issues up front, however, with Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley likely gone for the season and fellow front-rower Ayden Johnstone is still recovering from concussion he suffered last September.

Struggles at the set-piece can cripple any side. This is partly why the Crusaders and Blues, with the best packs in the competition, appear destined to square off in the maiden finale.