The Long White Cloud over our heads:
The Highlanders traditionally have an impressive scrum, but not unlike the Waratahs they somehow fail to convert this advantage into winning performances. This year they`ll have the services of 20 year old Robbie Robinson and they might look to him for some much needed flair in their backline.
Right wing Ben Smith now has a couple of All Black caps which could give him the confidence to help this Highlander backline reach the next level.
Among the forwards they have the services of Tom Donnelly and Adam Thomson so they ought to keep the opposition busy but would be hard pressed to hold out the big contenders like the Crusaders.
Possible XV: Dagg, Smith, Shoemark, Hobbs, Vainikolo, Robinson, Cowan, Manu, Soakai, Donnelly, Bekhuis, Thomson, Newland, Macdonald, Mackintosh
Prediction: They will struggle to improve on their 11th position from last year and could quite conceivably slump to 12th on the log this year.
The Blues are one of those teams we know what to expect from, but sometimes you`re just powerless to stop it. No playing it safe here, they will run at you from all angles and if you`re just a little bit off your game you could find yourself three tries behind in almost no time at all. Their back three combination is one of the most dangerous in the competition and if you follow the Springbok approach against them, you could set yourself up for a long afternoon. In Wulf, Tuitavake and Cool Joe Rokocoko they have the personnel to run you ragged. Add the solid mid-field combination of McAlister and Toeava to the mix along with their new signing from the Crusaders, Stephen Brett at flyhalf and you might have the most dangerous backline in the competition.
But it`s not all doom and gloom. The Blues are a notoriously fickle bunch, you never know who will turn up, the all conquering team that swept everything off the table from the late nineties, or the perennial under achievers we witnessed off late. They have a crucial match in round four against the Crusaders in Christchurch and a lot depends on the outcome of this one. If they can take care of business there and remember the Crusaders are slow starters in this competition, it might just give them the confidence to challenge for a semi final position. Apart from the Christchurch match that looms large, they also have a favourable draw, with big contenders like the Brumbies and Bulls at home.
They have the obligatory strong front row but would the likes of Anthony Boric and Serge Lilo be enough to dominate come ruck or maul time?
Possible XV: Wulf, Tuitavake, Toeava, McAlister, Rokocoko, Brett, Mathewson, Lowrey, Lilo, Williams, Boric, Kaino, Afoa, Mealamu, Woodcock.
Prediction : They could jump up to 7th position this year.
The Chiefs turned out to be the best New Zealand contender last year. Their squad is basically the same so there`s no reason to expect anything less from them this year.
They will have a dangerous back three in Mils Muliaina the hugely impressive Lelia Masaga and the devastating Sitiveni Sivivatu.
While we all know what to expect from them when they start spreading the ball wide, they also have the ability to keep it tight and their mobile loose three, Messam, Latimer and Bourke recycle the ball very well. It is difficult enough to keep their backs at bay when you`re defences are organised but when your forwards are caught out of position way out wide they have absolutely no chance against the sheer pace of Masaga and Sivivatu.
Possible XV: Muliana, Masaga, Kahui, Bruce, Sivivatu, Donald, Leonard, Bourke, Latimer, O`Neill, Clarke, Messam, McGougan, Malmanche, Afeaki.
Prediction: Despite finishing 2nd last year I feel this year might be a bit more difficult for them. Other teams will know not to underestimate them and remember this year there should be stronger competition from the Brumbies as well that could just see the Chiefs slip out of the play offs.
The Hurricanes have a very balanced squad boasting a lot of quality. Not unlike the Stormers they seem to have what it takes on paper, but they somehow come unstuck at crucial times.
Also they`ve never really had a quality flyhalf, someone who could get the best from the big strong outside backs. This year they`ll start with Aaron Cruden , the IRB World Junior Player of the year. A lot depends on how soon the youngster can adapt to the fast pace of the Super 14 and whether he`ll be able to lay the foundation for them from which to launch their devastating backs.
You can`t go wrong with the All Black centre pair and in Hosea Gear they`ll have the pace out wide to finish whatever Smith and Nonu started. Piri Weepu is another big threat at scrumhalf who could take some initial pressure off Cruden when it comes to kicks at goal.
Their forwards are littered with All Blacks so when the Hurricanes are switched on, they`ll command some respect out there.
Possible XV: Jane, Gear, Smith, Nonu, Ellison, Cruden, Weepu, So`oialo, Lowe, Eaton, Evans, Vito, Tialata, Hore, Schwalger.
Prediction: With difficult away fixtures against the Blues, Bulls and Brumbies they might struggle to reach the play offs.
The Crusaders are the most successful team in the super 14. With no less than seven titles they know exactly what it takes to win this. The big news is the return of arguably the best flyhalf in the world, Dan Carter. Also if you take into account that their All Black lock Chris Jack will probably spend more time on the bench than on the park this year, you know they`ve got another crucial ingredient for super 14 success, depth, taken care off.
Yes they always start slow and with Richie McCaw sitting out the first three rounds you better hope you face them early on because when they start hitting their straps in the closing stages of this competition they could be an impossible challenge. Their last fixture in front of their loyal supporters in Christchurch against the Brumbies could secure them a home final.
They could be a bit thin at prop but otherwise there`s virtually no weaknesses here. This team has composure, they know what it takes to win and have mastered the art of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. They have some of the best locks in the competition, a loose three that competes with the best of them and although their backs might not be as well known, they have a synergy in this side that`s almost impossible to comprehend.
Bottom line, if you want the super 14 trophy this year, you will have to find a way to get past the Crusaders.
Possible XV: Slade, Guildford, Fruean, Crotty, Maitland, Carter, Ellis, Waldrom, Whitelock, Ross, Thorn, Read, Franks, Flynn, Crockett.
Prediction: They`ll be in the play offs . . . as always.