New Zealand franchises utterly dominated the 2016 Super Rugby competition, with the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders all crafting the equal-best regular-season record (alongside South Africa’s Lions) with 11 wins and four losses – despite the disadvantage of having to play six games against their powerhouse conference rivals.
Even the long-suffering Blues managed a winning season, with eight wins and a draw from 15 outings – just four points adrift of the eighth-placed Sharks.
The misery looks set to continue next season for the other 13 teams, with each of the Kiwi sides making key additions to their 2017 squads, which have all been released this week.
The Blues appear determined to build on their vast improvement under Tana Umaga’s coaching, recruiting aggressively for 2017. Sonny Bill Williams is the marquee signing, joining a mouth-watering backline that will include Rene Ranger, George Moala and Rieko Ioane. All Black halfback Augustine Pulu also arrives to form a new combination with Ihaia West.
Chiefs prop Pauliasi Manu and lock/flanker Jimmy Tupou bolster a squad of forwards that has bid farewell to Josh Bekhuis, Tanerau Latimer and Quentin MacDonald to France, while in the backs Bryn Hall, Ben Lam and Tevita have joined NZ rivals.
BACKS: Michael Collins (Otago), Matt Duffie (North Harbour), TJ Faiane (Auckland), Billy Guyton (Tasman), Rieko Ioane (Auckland), Matt Vaega (North Harbour), George Moala (Auckland), Melani Nanai (Auckland), Sam Nock (Northland), Declan O’Donnell (Taranaki), Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki), Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), Rene Ranger (North Harbour), Jordon Trainor (Waikato), Ihaia West (Hawkes Bay), Sonny Bill Williams (Counties Manukau), Piers Francis (Counties Manukau).
FORWARDS: Gerard Cowley-Tuioti (North Harbour), Epalahame Faiva (Waikato), Charlie Faumuina (Auckland), Blake Gibson (Auckland), Josh Goodhue (Northland), Alex Hodgman (Canterbury), Akira Ioane (Auckland), Jerome Kaino (Auckland), Steven Luatua (Auckland), Sione Mafileo (North Harbour), Pauliasi Manu (Counties Manukau), Matt Moulds (Northland), Brandon Nansen (North Harbour), James Parsons (North Harbour), Sam Prattley (Auckland), Kara Pryor (Northland), Scott Scrafton (Auckland), Murphy Taramai (North Harbour), Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau), Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Auckland).
2017 Squad – “First & foremost we have players who’re proud to put on the jersey & build on the Blues legacy” https://t.co/JEIgXVoDTs
— The Blues (@BluesRugbyTeam) November 1, 2016
Stability has been the focus for the controversy-hit Chiefs, with returning stars Tim Nanai-Williams and Liam Messam the only big-name additions for 2017. The loss of midfield guns Seta Tamanivalu and Sonny Bill Williams is offset by the hopeful return of Charlie Ngatai from a concussion layoff and the All Blacks elevation of Anton Lienert-Brown.
Augustine Pulu joins SBW at the Blues, but the Chiefs still have Test scrum-feeders Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Brad Weber to partner Aaron Cruden in the halves.
PROP: Nepo Laulala (Counties Manukau), Atu Moli (Waikato), Siegfried Fisi’ihoi (Bay of Plenty), Mitchell Graham (Taranaki), Kane Hames (Tasman), Sosefo Kautai (Waikato). HOOKER: Hika Elliot (Counties Manukau), Nathan Harris (Bay of Plenty), Liam Polwart (Bay of Plenty). LOCK: Brodie Retallick (Hawkes Bay), Dominic Bird (Canterbury), Michael Allardice (Hawkes Bay), James Tucker (Waikato). LOOSE FORWARD: Taleni Seu (Auckland), Liam Messam, Mitchell Brown (Taranaki), Sam Cane (Bay of Plenty), Mitchell Karpik (Bay of Plenty), Lachlan Boshier (Taranaki), Tom Sanders (Canterbury), Michael Leitch.
HALFBACK: Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Waikato), Brad Weber (Hawkes Bay), Finlay Christie (Tasman). FIRST FIVE EIGHTH: Aaron Cruden (Manawatu), Stephen Donald (Waikato). FIRST FIVE EIGHTH / OUTSIDE BACK: Damian McKenzie (Waikato). MIDFIELD: Charlie Ngatai (Taranaki), Anton Lienert-Brown (Waikato), Johnny Fa’auli (Taranaki). MIDFIELD / OUTSIDE BACK: Tim Nanai-Williams, Solomon Alaimalo (Northland). OUTSIDE BACK: Sam McNicol (Hawkes Bay), James Lowe (Tasman), Chase Tiatia (Bay of Plenty), Toni Pulu (Counties Manukau), Glen Fisiiahi (Counties Manukau), Shaun Stevenson (Waikato).
In case you missed our early morning announcement, here’s a short video featuring the entire squad! Who’s pumped for next season?! pic.twitter.com/fCH8QdKToG
— Chiefs Rugby (@ChiefsRugby) November 1, 2016
The Wellington outfit looks well-placed to press for back-to-back titles. Top-liners Victor Vito, Willis Haloholo and Jason Woodward have departed, but former Waratahs and Warriors NRL forward Sam Lousi, Crusaders loosie Reed Prinsep and Blues winger Ben Lam all come on board.
Outstanding inside-back prospect Jordie Barrett – brother of Beauden – is one of four exciting rookies to join the squad, while World Cup hero Nehe Milner-Skudder will return from injury after missing most of 2016.
FORWARDS (22): Props (6): Chris Eves (Manawatu), Reggie Goodes (Wellington), Ben May (Hawke’s Bay), Jeffery Toomaga-Allen (Wellington), Loni Uhila (Waikato), Mike Kainga (Taranaki). Hookers (3): Dane Coles (Wellington) (c), Leni Apisai (Wellington), Ricky Riccitelli (Hawke’s Bay). Locks (5): Mark Abbott (Hawke’s Bay), James Broadhurst (Taranaki), Geoffrey Cridge (Hawke’s Bay), Michael Fatialofa, (Auckland), Sam Lousi (Wellington) *. Loose forwards: (8) Callum Gibbins (Manawatu), Vaea Fifita (Wellington), Reed Prinsep (Canterbury) *, Hugh Renton (Hawke’s Bay), Ardie Savea (Wellington), Brad Shields (Wellington), Blade Thomson (Taranaki), Toa Halafihi (Taranaki) **.
BACKS (16): Halfbacks (3): TJ Perenara (Wellington), Te Toiroa Tahuiorangi (Taranaki), Kylem O’Donnell (Taranaki) *. First five-eighth: (2) Beauden Barrett (Taranaki), Otere Black (Manawatu). Midfield: (4) Vince Aso (Auckland), Ngani Laumape (Manawatu), Matt Proctor (Wellington), Pita Ahki (North Harbour), Wes Goosen (Wellington). Outside backs (6): Cory Jane (Wellington), Julian Savea (Wellington), Ben Lam (Wellington) *, Nehe Milner-Skudder (Manawatu), Peter Umaga-Jensen (Wellington) **. Utility back: (1) Jordie Barrett ** (Canterbury).
— Hurricanes Rugby (@Hurricanesrugby) October 28, 2016
After narrowly missing out on the all-important top spot on the ladder and making a swift finals exit this year, the Crusaders have made a couple of blue-chip pick-ups for their first season under new coach Scott Robertson – though there are a number of key departures.
The Crusaders’ forward contingent remains stable, with Jimmy Tupou the only notable departure. A quartet of Mitre 10 Cup players – prop Oliver Jager, hooker Andrew Makalio, lock Quinten Strange and loose forward Heiden Bedwell-Curtis – will make the step up to Super Rugby.
There’s a number of changes in the backs, though, with ex-Blues halfback Bryn Hall coming into the squad for Japan-bound veteran Andy Ellis. Maori All Black Tim Bateman returns to the Crusaders and is joined by 2016 All Blacks debutant Seta Tamanivalu, who is a huge addition from the Chiefs. The pair will vie for a midfield spot alongside Ryan Crotty after Robbie Fruean and Kieron Fonotia took overseas deals.
Former Wallaby Digby Ioane is an intriguing wing signing, and he has big shoes to fill with Nemani Nadolo and Johnny McNicholl both setting sail for the northern hemisphere.
PROPS: Michael Alaalatoa, Wyatt Crockett, Oliver Jager, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Owen Franks. HOOKERS: Ben Funnell, Andrew Makalio, Codie Taylor. LOCKS: Scott Barrett, Luke Romano, Quinten Strange, Sam Whitelock. LOOSE FORWARDS: Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Jed Brown, Mitchell Dunshea, Kieran Read, Pete Samu, Jordan Taufua. Matt Todd HALFBACKS: Mitchell Drummond, Leon Fukofuka, Bryn Hall. FIRST FIVE-EIGHTHS: Tim Bateman, Marty McKenzie, Richie Mo’unga, MIDFIELD BACKS: Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, Seta Tamanivalu, Sean Wainui. OUTSIDE BACKS: George Bridge, Israel Dagg, Sione Fifita, Mitchell Hunt, Digby Ioane, Jone Macilai, Manasa Mataele.
— Hannah Mills (@hannahmillsnz) November 1, 2016
No team did better at tying up their first-choice line-up for 2017 than the Highlanders. Prop Josh Hohneck, lock Mark Reddish and flyhalf Marty Banks are the only regular members of the game-day 23 to depart, while depth wingers Ryan Tongia and Jack Wilson have also accepted overseas deals.
Joining new coach Tony Brown’s squad are super-talented outside-back Tevita LI, ex-Chiefs halfback Kayne Hammington, former Force prop Guy Millar and Chiefs front-rower Siate Tokolahi.
The arrival of Li and the return of cult hero Richard ‘The Barracuda’ Buckman from an injury-ravaged 2016 creates massive backline competition, with Matt Faddes, Rob Thompson, Jason Emery and Patrick Osborne also vying for the No.11-15 jerseys with All Blacks trio Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith.
FORWARDS: Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Guy Millar*, Siate Tokolahi*, Aki Seiuli, Craig Millar, Tom Franklin, Joe Wheeler, Alex Ainley, Josh Dickson*, Jackson Hemopo, Luke Whitelock, Liam Squire, James Lentjes, Gareth Evans, Dan Pryor, Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon
BACKS: Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington*, Josh Renton, Lima Sopoaga, Hayden Parker, Fletcher Smith, Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Osborne, Tevita Li*, Jason Emery, Ben Smith
— The Highlanders (@Highlanders) October 25, 2016