The strongest group in the competition, the New Zealand conference, will again be immensely competitive in 2018. Take a look at our guide below

Super Rugby – New Zealand Conference Guide

The 2018 Super Rugby competition is going to look very different from its 2017 edition with three fewer teams, law changes and a new format. For all the up-to-date news on that, visit our Super Rugby explained article.

Let’s take a look at the New Zealand teams aiming for victory this year.

Blues

Despite having an illustrious history, of all the New Zealand Super Rugby sides, the Blues are the only team in the past five years not to win a title.

Last year they disappointed with seven wins, one draw and seven losses, and considering the plethora of quality players they possess, coach and All Black legend Tana Umaga will hope for a much improved start to the season in 2018.

No doubt, he will need his All Blacks – Jerome Kaino, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Augustine Pulu and George Moala – to all start performing.

Leader: Sonny Bill Williams is one of the most experienced players in the squad (Getty Images)

Notable Ins

Otere Black (Hurricanes), Caleb Clarke (Auckland)

Notable Outs

Charlie Faumuina (Toulouse), Piers Francis (Northampton), Steven Luatua (Bristol), Rene Ranger (La Rochelle), Ihaia West (Hurricanes)

Prediction

They will struggle to make the play-offs considering the strength of the other teams in the conference.

Chiefs

After back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013, the Chiefs have been on a bit of a dry spell, most recently losing in the semi-finals to the Hurricanes in 2016 and the Crusaders in 2017.

But because of players like Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown, they are one of the most dangerous sides, especially when counter-attacking.

They have All Blacks all over the pitch, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Liam Messam to name but a few, but Dave Rennie has left to become coach of the Glasgow Warriors. Time will tell if new coach Colin Cooper can enjoy the same kind of success.

Big loss: Aaron Cruden moving to Montpellier has left big shoes to fill (Getty Images)

Notable Ins

Marty McKenzie (Crusaders)

Notable Outs

Aaron Cruden (Montpellier), Hika Elliot (Oyonnax), Tawera Kerr-Barlow (La Rochelle), Michael Leitch (Sunwolves), James Lowe (Leinster)

Prediction

Play-off bound but winning it all might be a stretch too far after the quality they have lost.

Crusaders 

Last year’s winners, the Crusaders firmly entrenched themselves as the most distinguished team in Super Rugby history with eight titles in 22 years.

And there is no reason to think they won’t repeat that in 2018 either, having not lost any key players. The only blots are the back injury to Kieran Read, which is likely to keep him out for the first few weeks of the season, and the injuries to starting props Joe Moody and Owen Franks.

Lock Sam Whitelock is more than capable of taking up the captaincy role, though, as shown by his performance in last year’s final against the Lions. And All Black Wyatt Crockett gives more than capable cover on one side of the scrum so the Crusaders are in good shape.

Captain fantastic: Whitelock led the team brilliantly to the 2017 Super Rugby title (Getty Images)

Notable Ins

Tom Sanders (Chiefs)

Notable Outs

Digby Ioane (Panasonic Wild Knights), Marty McKenzie (Chiefs)

Prediction

Should contend heavily for the title.

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Highlanders

The 2017 season didn’t end as planned for the Highlanders, a 17-0 defeat to eventual champions Crusaders ending their hopes, but making the play-offs in the first place was an achievement. They lost three games in four weeks to start the season but went on a nine-game win streak to show the rest of the tournament their class.

Aaron Mauger is the new coach for the Otago-based side, but on the pitch they have managed to keep all of their All Blacks. The retention of the Smiths, Aaron and Ben, is particularly important.

This will also be New Zealand fly-half Lima Sopoaga’s last season before he joins Wasps later in the year.

The Smiths: Key Highlanders Ben and Aaron Smith (Getty Images)

Notable Ins

None

Notable Outs

Marty Banks (Benetton), Malakai Fekitoa (Toulon), Patrick Osborne (Kubota Spears)

Prediction

Just sneak into the play-offs, but will not seriously contend for the title.

Hurricanes 

The Wellington-based side were incredibly exciting to watch last year, but considering their talent, it is a surprise they have won only one title in the past three years.

Led by one of the best players in the world, Beauden Barrett, and with a back-line that would look at home at international level, the Hurricanes are one of the favourites going into the 2018 tournament.

They will score a lot of tries, but due to their attacking style, their defence is suspect on occasion, which has dented their title hopes in more than one tournament.

Barretts: Brothers Beauden and Jordie will look to continue their sparkling partnership in 2018 (Getty Images)

Notable Ins

Finlay Christie (Chiefs), Toby Smith (Rebels), Ihaia West (Blues)

Notable Outs

Otere Black (Blues), James Broadhurst (retired), Toa Halafihi (Lyon), Cory Jane (Toshiba Brave Lupus)

Prediction

They will lose in the final.