The lowdown on the five New Zealand franchises


Super Rugby Aotearoa Team Guide 2021

This year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa season kicks off this weekend with defending champions the Crusaders travelling to the Highlanders on Friday and the Hurricanes hosting the Blues on Saturday.

New Zealand’s round-robin competition will end with a final on 8 May and they are then due to play in a Trans-Tasman competition with the Super Rugby AU franchises in May-June, although that is under threat due to Covid-19.

RugbyPass will live stream Super Rugby Aotearoa matches in the UK and Ireland after teaming up with New Zealand Rugby and here is the lowdown on the five sides competing for the title.

Super Rugby Aotearoa Team Guide 2021


Last year Second

Coach Leon MacDonald has been at the helm since 2019 when he took over from another former All Black, Tana Umaga, now the team’s defence coach.

Squad news The Blues are without Beauden Barrett for this Super Rugby campaign as the All Black is playing for Suntory Sungoliath in Japan.

Test props Nepo Laulala (NZ) and James Lay (Samoa) come into the squad while flanker Dillon Hunt, who impressed for the Highlanders last year and made a record 100 tackles across the season, has joined on a two-year deal.

Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, 19, is a new signing to look out for. The wing/full-back has been wowing crowds since he was a schoolboy and scored eight tries in ten games for Taranaki in the Mitre 10 Cup last year.

Rugby league star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has also joined the Blues on a two-year deal.

Key player While it was youngsters like Caleb Clarke and Hoskins Sotutu who got the headlines last year, skipper Patrick Tuipulotu was also a standout – and not only because of that pink hair.

The 28-year-old lock had his best season for both club and country in 2020; his leadership credentials have been enhanced while a “no excuses” mentality has seen his performance levels climb steadily higher.

Stat attack Despite finishing second last year, the Blues were bottom in several stats charts: clean breaks (55), carries (669 – more than 200 fewer than the next lowest), metres made (2,149), defenders beaten (118) and offloads (57). So gains can be made attacking-wise.


Last year Fifth

Coach With Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions commitments taking precedence this year, Clayton McMillan steps up as interim head coach.

Squad news They have lost experience in Aaron Cruden (Kobelco Steelers) and Nepo Laulala (Blues), but have brought in some promising youngsters.

There are Waikato half-backs Xavier Roe and Rivez Reihana, flanker Kaylum Boshier – brother of breakdown boss Lachlan – and 21-year-old lock Tupou Vaa’i, who was called into the Chiefs squad as injury cover last year and went on to make his All Blacks debut. Warren’s son Bryn Gatland, a fly-half, has also signed.

Key player Before the pandemic saw the traditional Super Rugby season cancelled, the Chiefs had impressed by winning four of their first six games, but in the Aotearoa tournament they lost all eight.

There wasn’t much to catch the eye during that campaign, but Damian McKenzie still did his best to spark the team’s attack into life – his 99 carries the most of anyone in the competition.

The full-back’s creativity, as well as his goalkicking, will be needed again this season if the Chiefs are to break their duck and rise up the standings.

Stat attack Two of the most alarming figures for the Chiefs back-room team from last season are tries for/against. They conceded twice as many as they scored (28 to 14), so improvements are needed with and without the ball.


Last year Champions

Coach Scott Robertson has been in charge of the Crusaders since 2017, winning three straight Super Rugby titles before then lifting the inaugural Aotearoa trophy last season too. Tamati Ellison has come in as an assistant in place of ex-Wales wing Mark Jones.

Squad news There have been minimal changes at the reigning champions, with no major losses. Rene Ranger and Josh McKay come in as injury cover and there are four arrivals from the academy – Chay Fihaki, Fletcher Newell, Isaiah Punivai and Tamaiti Williams.

George Bridge will miss the start of the season with a pectoral problem while centre Braydon Ennor is out with a long-term knee injury.

There is good news in the second row, with Scott Barrett back after missing last season through injury and Sam Whitelock involved from the off after his early return from Japan midway through 2020 that saw him able to take part in last year’s Aotearoa campaign.

Key player The Crusaders squad is full of big names and quality players. It is Richie Mo’unga who makes this team tick, though.

The fly-half, NZ’s Super Rugby Player of the Year and the top point-scorer in 2020, dictates the tempo the Crusaders play at and has the vision, as well as the range of kicks and passes, to provide dangerous backs like Will Jordan, Sevu Reece and Jack Goodhue with scoring opportunities.

Stat attack This category belongs to Will Jordan, who topped the Aotearoa 2020 charts for tries (six), clean breaks (15), defenders beaten (39) and metres (724).


Last year Fourth

Coach Tony Brown, who was part of the Japan coaching team at RWC 2019, has moved up from assistant coach to replace Aaron Mauger in the top job.

Squad news Japan back-row Kazuki Himeno is their big signing and while Covid has meant he only arrived in NZ in early February, he should make a big impact with his carries and link play.

Highlanders fans will also be hoping to see Nehe Milner-Skudder on the pitch this year. The livewire wing, who should suit Brown’s style of play, signed last May but was kept on the sidelines due to a shoulder injury before making his rugby return in the Mitre 10 Cup.

Super Rugby Aotearoa Team Guide

Nehe Milner-Skudder in Highlanders colours (Getty Images)

Dillon Hunt, the league’s top tackler last year, is a big loss in the back row, but All Black Liam Squire returns after a stint in Japan while former Sale Shark Bryn Evans adds experience at lock.

Key player “He is as close to the perfect passer of the ball as the sport has seen.” That’s what Stuart Barnes said about Aaron Smith in Rugby World last year as the All Blacks scrum-half rediscovered his best form. His tactical nous will be vital in guiding a back-line that doesn’t have the international experience of other franchises.

Stat attack The Highlanders won 91% of their lineouts in 2020 – better than any other team in the Australia and New Zealand competitions. With that sort of percentage rate, it’s no surprise that they have a strong driving maul.


Last year Third

Coach This is Jason Holland’s second season in charge and he has added former Munster fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal to his coaching team.

Squad news Former All Blacks wing Julian Savea returns to the Hurricanes to join up with brother Ardie after two years at Toulon in France, while Lolagi Visinia and Pepesana Patafilo are other new recruits out wide.

They are without half-back TJ Perenara, who is playing for NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes in Japan this year, while wings Ben Lam and Kobus van Wyk have both headed to Europe.

Key player Jordie Barrett and Ardie Savea both had great 2020s, but Ngani Laumape is the one that brings X-factor to the Canes’ back-line.

He may not have been given as much recognition at Test level as some would like, but his ability to bust the line and topple defenders means he can create tries for himself and others. Remember what he did to Beauden Barrett last year?!

Stat attack The Hurricanes made 109 clean breaks last season – the only franchise to surpass the three-figure mark – and only the Crusaders scored more tries than them (25 to 27).

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