Super Rugby Aotearoa: Squad updates, form guides and analysis

It may have only been three months, but it kind of feels like forever.

Thankfully, Saturday week, we'll have some rugby to watch once more. And it really couldn't be a better scenario.

Ten back-to-back weeks of nothing but New Zealand derbies? Yes, please. Come on down, Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Australia's own domestic competition will be up and running in early July, giving us twice the rugby action to enjoy, but for now all eyes will be focused on New Zealand and a competition that surely won't disappoint.

And, better yet, crowds will also be able to attend after New Zealand on Monday moved to Alert Level 1.

The seven rounds of Super Rugby that were played earlier in the year might not have any bearing on this new competition - sorry, Blues fans - but there were more than a few pointers to suggest how things might play out in New Zealand over the coming months.

And then, of course, a lot has changed, too.


Seven rounds of ... improvement.

After years of ineptitude, the Blues finally looked like they were on the path to something good. They dropped two of their first three - worryingly two of which were at home to fellow New Zealand opposition - but then swept their two-game tour of South Africa and came back home, snapped a losing streak in Wellington and then mauled the Lions at home. They also unveiled a couple of rising stars in Mark Telea and Hoskins Sotutu, while Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta had formed a solid playmaking partnership between 10 and 15.

What's new?

First it was one name, then, on Wednesday, suddenly it was two. At the start of year if someone had said to you Beauden Barrett and Dan Carter would be playing for the same team, the Blues no less, they likely would have shipped you off to the insane asylum. But 2020 is a year like no other, and now this once ridiculous prospect is a reality. There's a touch of Murphy's Law about it, as just as the Blues finally started to see some consistency from their playmakers they were set to unleash Barrett for the first time. Instead, COVID-19 put that plan on hold and gave coach Leon MacDonald a little extra time to sort out his planning, while Perofeta's injury opened the door for Carter's signature. Signed as the long-term solution to their No. 10 woes, it would be a huge shock for MacDonald not to bring Barrett straight into first-five; that would also allow for him to be shifted to fullback later in the match when the opportunities for broken-field running might be more plentiful. He could also then introduce Carter, reprising the combination that was on the field when the All Blacks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2015.

Work-ons: The Blues' lineout was running at 82 percent success before Super Rugby came to a halt; that's not quite at critical levels just yet but it is certainly something that you'd like to have operating at closer to 90 percent. The Blues' could also tighten up their discipline after they conceded the fifth most penalties in Super Rugby and also had four players yellow carded.

Prediction: Third


Seven rounds of ... getting to know Gatland.

The former Wales coach wasted little time in making his mark on the Chiefs, leading the franchise to a 4-2 record; though a last-minute loss to the Hurricanes, via a penalty goal, just took the gloss off their early-season work. Gatland was managing the squad's All Blacks contingent - as required - superbly, while Damian McKenzie's return to fullback had also paid dividends. Aaron Cruden had also made a solid return to Super Rugby and new All Blacks captain Sam Cane was leading a pack of hard-working forwards, three of whom ranked inside the top five for average tackles per game. Most notably, any suggestions that Gatland would try and play as he had with Wales were quickly swept aside; a brilliant second-half onslaught against the Waratahs proving the Chiefs have the skills to match it with anyone. Flanker Lachlan Boshier was also dominating the breakdown, his 10 forced penalties being five more than anyone else.

What's new?

The Chiefs have added no additional resources, even though they did make contact with Brodie Retallick about a potential return after the All Blacks lock came home from Japan. But they did negotiate a contract extension for Cruden, so that he could stay through to the end of the new competition. What Gatland will however be thankful for will be almost complete access to his All Blacks stars. With rest weeks already served and then a three-month break, there should be no concerns over player workload. All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala is again available after injury.

Work-ons: While they have produced some brilliant pieces of attacking play, Gatland will likely have demanded a greater focus on the team's defensive effort for Super Rugby Aotearoa. Through seven weeks of Super Rugby the Chiefs had conceded the second most missed tackles behind only the Sunwolves, though the Waikato men had also been asked to make the second most tackles of any side. What that suggests is that Chiefs have been playing pretty well without the ball, and look out should they start to see a little more of it.

Prediction: Second


Seven rounds of ... Crusaders consistency

A push for a fourth straight Super Rugby crown was always going to be the red-and-black juggernaut's biggest challenge, particularly given they had waved goodbye to club stalwarts Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read, Jordan Taufua, Ryan Crotty and Owen Franks at the end of last season. But at 5-1 from six games, it was largely business as usual for Scott Robertson's men. They were tested at home by the Reds - and probably should have been beaten - but that effort said more about the Queenslanders than it did the Crusaders. The 10-time champions had brought in the next wave of talent in Tom Christie and Cullen Grace, while Richie Mo'unga and Jack Goodhue had merely picked up from where they had left off at the World Cup last year.

What's new?

Sam Whitelock was due to return to the Crusaders in 2021, but circumstances presented the opportunity to return to Christchurch this year and that is exactly what he has done. Like Carter, Whitelock found himself at a loose end after the Japanese Top League's cancellation, and coach Scott Robertson wasted little time adding the All Blacks lock back onto his list. Whitelock's addition gives an already strong Crusaders pack another edge alongside skipper Scott Barrett.

Work-ons: The Crusaders had also been making a helluva lot of tackles earlier this year. Their 933 was more than any team in Super Rugby and they, too, won't have been happy with an average number of 24.3 missed tackles per game either. They have forever sweated on turnover ball; their ability to turn defence into attack one of the reasons why they have been so dangerous over an extended period. The Crusaders were also averaging 11.2 penalties conceded per game.

Prediction: First


Seven rounds of ... a new era.

No Beauden Barrett. No John Plumtree. No Ardie Savea. The Hurricanes went into Super Rugby with a new coach, new playmaker and without their best player, which presented some challenges before the coronavirus arrived. The Canes had, like the Chiefs and Blues, built a 4-2 record after recovering from a horror first-up 27-0 loss to the Stormers. Their other slip was another ill-disciplined showing against the Blues when they were reduced to just 12 men for a four-minute period and generally just looked out of sorts. Jordie Barrett had however been looking the goods, his post-siren penalty securing the Canes a win in Hamilton, while centre Ngani Laumape was also making a statement having missed World Cup selection.

What's new?

Welcome back, Ardie Savea. While the Hurricanes couldn't bring his brother into the frame, Savea is ready to roll after he underwent surgery after last year's World Cup. Savea had been closing in on a return after knee surgery before the pandemic struck while Hurricanes coach Jason Holland a fortnight ago said "it's a good chance [of Savea returning for June 14], although with Ards it's not massively important that it happens if it's not the absolute right thing to do". Read into that what you like, but Savea will be back for the bulk of the competition. Savea's ball-carrying and metres-through-contact are unmatched in Super Rugby; he will give the Hurricanes a huge injection through the middle of the park.

Work-ons: Only the Sharks had a more dysfunctional lineout than the Hurricanes [82 percent] across the first seven weeks of Super Rugby. That is not a percentage that will lose you games, but given the even spread of talent in Super Rugby Aotearoa, and week-to-week competitiveness, it's a figure they would like to improve. The Hurricanes were also averaging the third most penalties conceded per game, while five yellow cards and one red across six games doesn't make for great reading either.

Prediction: Fourth


Seven weeks of ... problems.

The Highlanders will head into Super Rugby Aotearoa thankful all five teams will be starting on zero, as they had already fallen well adrift of their conference rivals earlier in the year. Aaron Mauger's side had won just the one game, the coach himself coming under increasing pressure; the Highlanders' only joy a last-gasp victory over the Brumbies in Canberra in Round 3. Mauger's decision to move fly-half Josh Ioane to inside-centre to accommodate the arrival of Mitch Hunt hadn't quite gone as planned; the Highlanders lacking fluidity in attack overall as their lowly 2.2 average tries per game could attest. And the Highlanders had also been hit by a terrible ankle injury to skipper James Lentjies, which may have left a few lingering scars across the squad.

What's new?

While the recruitment of Nehe Milner-Skudder has given the Highlanders an extra attacking weapon and a proven finisher, it's Mauger's admission that the Hunt-Ioane experiment is over which could really shake things up. The duo will now fight it out for the No. 10 jersey, and give Ioane the opportunity to rediscover the play that earned him a maiden All Blacks call-up last year. That will likely see the Highlanders take on a more direct approach through the middle by playing ball-runners at both 12 and 13, rather than a second distributor at second-five.

Work-ons: A review during isolation revealed that the Highlanders needed to work harder for longer, and that is a fact reflected by some lacklustre attacking stats from Super Rugby. As well as scoring the average fewest tries of any team, the Highlanders also ran for the second fewest average metres. But the two standout stats were just a 55.5 percent [13th] advantage line success and that they could only string seven or more phases together an average 1.8 times per match - the competition's worst return. Those two numbers reflect Mauger's belief that the Highlanders need to work harder for longer; whether they will get the chance to do so against four stacked teams is another matter.

Prediction: Fifth