ANALYSIS: The Crusaders will go into the 2019 Super Rugby season in the familiar position of favourites after unveiling the most complete squad in New Zealand.
The Kiwi franchises all revealed some familiar faces on Wednesday as well as a swag of new talent but it is Scott Robertson’s squad that looks the most impressive.
Even in a World Cup year, when they will have to manage their key All Blacks smartly, the Crusaders have an imposing look about them.
Indeed, they have two halfbacks and two No 10s currently with the All Blacks in Japan – Bryn Hall, Mitchell Drummond, Richie Mo’unga and Brett Cameron.
* Marty Banks back for Highlandes in 2019
* Homegrown feel to the 2019 Blues
* Crusaders sign Tasman teen for 2019
* Chiefs secure bright prospects for 2019
* Hurricanes bring talent home for 2019
While the other Kiwi franchises have enough to topple the Crusaders on their day – and that includes the Blues, if they get their preparation right – over the course of the season no one is better equipped to deal with the unforeseen than the champions of the past two seasons.
As always, there is a nod to the future in the Crusaders’ squad. Outside backs Ngane Punivai and Leicester Faingaanuku will no doubt be used sparingly as they learn the ropes.
But it is the sheer number of top-end All Blacks and an outstanding ‘middle tier’ of players that sets them apart.
Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett are four-fifth of the current All Blacks tight five and players such as Ethan Blackadder, Tom Sanders and Quinten Strange are the sort of unheralded athletes that help you win titles.
Of the rest, the Hurricanes look ready to mount a challenge with their powerful back line while the return of fullback James Marshall is a smart piece of business.
Marshall was a key contributor to their 2016 success and his clever play from fullback may get the best out of Beauden Barrett, in the same way the All Blacks are using Damian McKenzie to take the pressure of the All Blacks No 10.
The Chiefs, too, are stacked with explosive ball runners and look to have a quality propping department, although a midfielder will have to step up to fill the hole left by Charlie Ngatai.
The Highlanders have a gap to fill as well after the departure of Lima Sopoaga but their chief concern will be eliminating some of the inconsistency that held them back in 2018.
When the men from Dunedin fire, especially at home, they are a handful for anyone in the competition and they have a number of younger players with a year of Super Rugby under their belt who are ready to kick on.
The Blues welcome back Ma’a Nonu but their most significant recruitment has come among the coaches.
The highly rated Leon MacDonald and Tom Coventry will be expected to bring some high standards and a harder edge to the Blues and they certainly have some potential to work with.
As ever, though, their fortunes will be linked to whether they can find that elusive No 10 who can drive them around the park.
Auckland’s Harry Plummer looks like a cool customer although it is too early to put the burden on him.
Instead, Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta look set to compete for the No 10 jersey and it is Perofeta who may yet come through.
Some of his contributions in 2018 did not match his talent and he still looks like a player with the right set of skills for Super Rugby.
The Crusaders, however, have set the bar high in the past two campaigns and must be considered contenders for the three-peat.
It is a case of ‘catch us if you can’ from the red and black machine in Christchurch.
2019 Blues squad:
Front row: Leni Apisai, Alex Hodgman, Ezekiel Lindenmuth, Sione Mafileo, Matt Moulds, James Parsons, Marcel Renata, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
Locks: Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Josh Goodhue, Jacob Pierce, Scott Scrafton, Patrick Tuipulotu.
Loose forwards: Jed Brown, Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson, Hoskins Sotutu, Jimmy Tupou.
Halfbacks: Sam Nock, Augustine Pulu, Jonathan Ruru.
First-fives: Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta, Harry Plummer.
Midfield: Levi Aumua, TJ Faiane, Ma’a Nonu, Tanielu Tele’a, Sonny Bill Williams.
Outside Backs: Caleb Clarke, Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, Rieko Ioane, Melani Nanai, Jordan Trainor.
The Blues squad for Super Rugby in 2019.
2019 Chiefs squad
Props: Kane Hames, Aidan Ross, Reuben O’Neill, Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli, Sosefo Kautai, Angus Ta’avao
Hookers: Nathan Harris Liam Polwart, Samisoni Taukei’aho
Locks: Brodie Retallick, Tyler Ardron, Laghlan McWhannell, Michael Allardice, Fin Hoeata
Loose forwards: Mitchell Brown, Taleni Seu, Sam Cane, Mitchell Karpik, Lachlan Boshier, Luke Jacobson, Pita Gus Sowakula
Halfbacks: Brad Weber, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Jonathan Taumateine
First five-eighths: Damian McKenzie, Tiaan Falcon, Jack Debreczeni
Midfielders: Alex Nankivell, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tumua Manu, Bailyn Sullivan
Outside backs: Solomon Alaimalo, Sean Wainui, Ataata Moeakiola, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Shaun Stevenson, Marty McKenzie
The Chiefs squad for the 2019 Super Rugby season.
2019 Crusaders squad
Props: Michael Alaalatoa, Harry Allan, Owen Franks, Oliver Jager, Joe Moody, Tim Perry
Hookers: Ben Funnell, Andrew Makalio, Codie Taylor
Locks: Scott Barrett, Quinten Strange, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock
Loose forwards: Ethan Blackadder, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Mitchell Dunshea, Billy Harmon, Kieran Read, Tom Sanders, Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd
Halfbacks: Mitchell Drummond, Ereatara Enari, Bryn Hall
First-fives: Brett Cameron, Mitchell Hunt, Richie Mo’unga
Midfield backs: Tim Bateman, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Ngane Punivai
Outside backs: George Bridge, Israel Dagg, David Havili, Braydon Ennor, Leicester Faingaanuku, Will Jordan, Manasa Mataele
The Crusaders squad for Super Rugby in 2019.
2019 Highlanders squad
Hookers: Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ray Niuia
Props: Daniel Lienert-Brown, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Siate Tokolahi, Tyrel Lomax, Sef Fa’agase
Locks: Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Paripari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Jack Whetton
Loosies: Luke Whitelock, Liam Squire, James Lentjes, Dillon Hunt, Marino Mikaele Tu’u, Shannon Frizell, Elliot Dixon
Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Folau Fakatava
First-Fives: Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane, Marty Banks
Midfielders: Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Thomas Umaga-Jensen
Outside Backs: Waisake Naholo, Tevita Li, Tevita Nabura , Josh McKay , Ben Smith
The Highlanders squad for Super Rugby in 2019.
2019 Hurricanes squad:
Hookers: Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli.
Props: Fraser Armstrong, Chris Eves, Alex Fidow, Ben May, Toby Smith, Jeff To’omaga-Allen.
Locks: James Blackwell, Geoff Cridge, Sam Lousi, Liam Mitchell, Isaia Walker-Leawere.
Loose forwards: Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Gareth Evans, Vaea Fifita, Sam Henwood, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Reed Prinsep, Ardie Savea.
Halfbacks: Finlay Christie, Richard Judd, TJ Perenara.
First five-eighths: Beauden Barrett, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Fletcher Smith.
Midfield backs: Vince Aso, Wes Goosen, Ngani Laumape, Billy Proctor, Matt Proctor.
Outside backs: Jordie Barrett, Ben Lam, Jonah Lowe, Nehe Milner-Skudder, James Marshall, Salesi Rayasi.
The Hurricanes squad for the 2019 Super Rugby season.