OPINION: Open season is nearing. Before player transfers move into full swing, LIAM NAPIER assess the wants and needs of the five Kiwi franchises next year.
Departure gate: Rene Ranger, Ali Williams, Anthony Boric
Three significant losses for Sir John Kirwan. Williams' exit leaves the Blues devoid of a captain and desperate for locks, but Ranger's deflection cuts deep. Finally in his preferred No 13 jersey, the All Blacks utility was close to being the most explosive player of the season. Keven Mealamu's future is also uncertain - he is off contract at the end of this year. And Chris Noakes may be eyeing a new home with Kirwan attempting to lure other No 10s.
Areas of vulnerability: Centre, lock, prop, first five-eighth
Can it be fixed?
Plenty of holes and not enough "no gaps" filler to go around. Tony Woodcock propped up the Blues' loose head side of the scrum for a number of years and his void hasn't been filled. Tim Perry was exposed this year. Depth at second-row and first-five is problematic country-wide. Quality midfielders are also as rare as warm mornings this time of year. Jerome Kaino's possible return could solve the captaincy and No 8 conundrum. Despite showing promise, Peter Saili lacks consistent impact there. It's also time for Liaki Moli came of age at lock.
Dream signing: Beauden Barrett
Kirwan is chasing Benji Marshall hard but most will agree - at 22 - Barrett is a better recruit. Even if Marshall exceeds expectations and makes an immediate impact when switching codes next year, Barrett is a more viable option to build a team around. But the aggressive pursuit of Marshall indicates Barrett could be a long shot. Ideally, Kirwan would secure both. That would give him the flexibility of experimenting with the former Kiwis captain at fullback and using Charles Piutau on the wing and, possibly, at centre.
Departure gate: Richard Kahui, Craig Clarke, Lelia Masaga, Brendon Leonard
Kahui and Clarke will be missed for contrasting reasons. Clarke's leadership and lineout nous is invaluable. He is a reflection of the Chiefs' mantra - a grafter who sets the tone on and off the field. Constant shoulder problems robbed Kahui of his best for the franchise. When fit, the midfielder was destructive on attack and defence. Few others possess such reltenless physicality.
Areas of vulnerability: No 8, centre, wing
Can it be fixed?
Ross Filipo, Matt vant Leven, Fritz Lee, Liam Messam and Nick Crosswell all spent time at No 8 this year. The Chiefs will look to bring Kane Thompson back from Japan next year to take ownership of the role. Thompson played in two World Cups and 26 tests for Samoa. His experience and versatility - he can also cover lock - could prove valuable. Elsewhere the Chiefs are similarly placed to the Crusaders, with only four spots to fill on their roster. No surprises New Zealand's two strongest teams have the majority of their squads secured.
Dream signing: Sonny Bill-Williams
Dave Rennie will leave a spot open for Williams until September. The dual code superstar visited the Chiefs' changing room after their win over the Blues last week. Strong connections with the team and management remain. Rennie is hopeful he will be back next year. If not, Williams is near-certain to return to the franchise in 2015 to chase a spot in the World Cup.
Departure gate: Tom Marshall, Robbie Fruean, Dan Carter
Despite playing over 50 games for the Crusaders Marshall chose to link with former New Zealand under-20s mentor Dave Rennie at the Chiefs next year. He is keen to play fullback and saw his path blocked by Israel Dagg. Getting past Gareth Anscombe and Robbie Robinson at the Chiefs must seem an easier task.
Areas of vulnerability: Midfield, wing
Can it be fixed?
Expect minimal movement in the Crusaders ranks. Todd Blackadder has just five places to fill next year. Other than Richie McCaw's return, and possibly Tom Donnelly's exit, it will be the status quo up front. X-factor is needed in the midfield and out wide, though. Fruean's heart complications and Marshall's surprise move to the Chiefs leaves the red and blacks searching for depth. Johnny McNicholl's recovery will be valuable but, like many of his counterparts, Blackadder is scraping for a centre.
Dream signing: Mils Muliana/Luke McAlister
Having captured Colin Slade to cover Dan Carter's sabbatical, Blackadder's attention now turns to the midfield. Luke McAlister is off contract with Toulouse next year and may fancy his chances of another crack at the All Blacks. Mils Muliana has been open in his desire for a Super Rugby return from Japan. The All Blacks centurion had been linked with a move to the Chiefs and Blues but the Crusaders could use an experienced head to cover the midfield. Casey Laulala, though nearing the end of his career at 31, could be another option.
Departure gate: Hosea Gear, Kade Poki, Jamie MacKintosh, Colin Slade, Ma'a Nonu
Three of Jamie Joseph's first-choice back-line stars are gone - four if you include Poki - and they will take some replacing. Throw in Mackintosh's disgruntled move and it feels like another rebuild is looming.
Areas of vulnerability: Wing, midfield, prop, first-five, loose-forwards
Can it be fixed?
There is a huge challenge in-front of Joseph. Compromises need to be made around the relentless training regime and attracting players could prove difficult after the worst season in the franchise's history. Injuries played their part but the Highlanders were sorely lacking in the loose-forward department. Adam Thomson's void remains unfilled. Joseph may offer Chris Noakes a lifeline but he is not the answer at 10. And it is debatable whether Lima Sopoaga can run a full campaign. While outside backs tend to pop up the jump from NPC is not easy. With Tony Woodcock on the wane, another loose head prop could also be hard to find.
Dream signing: Julian Savea
Joseph has learnt the hard way. Purchasing big-name, aging players doesn't work. Woodcock and Nonu eroded much of what he had attempted to build. You can have dream signings but it means nothing if the team doesn't function as one. While he could do with a blockbusting wing such as Savea, next year Joseph wants to get the balance right; go back to the Chiefs' philosophy of having a compatible, harmonious squad. That work needs to start now. Joseph will be busy surveying the country for six crucial figures.
Departure gate: Ben May, Jason Eaton
May and Eaton are off to chase the Yen. Former All Blacks lock Eaton appeared disinterested for much of this season. He won't be a great loss. While solid, the same could be said for May. The Hurricanes front-row of Ben Franks, Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Reggie Goodes should kick on next year. Samoan playmaker Tusi Pisi is also off contract.
Areas of vulnerability: Lock, second-five, fullback, openside flanker
Can it be fixed?
Doubtful. Much interest centres on whether Mark Hammett will be leaned on to welcome Ma'a Nonu back. The Canes desperately need a physical presence to be the meat in the classy sandwich of Beauden Barrett and Conrad Smith. Second-five Tim Bateman and Andre Taylor were found wanting this year. James Marshall deserves more game-time and, if Alapati Leiua remains on the wing, Hammett needs to consider moving Cory Jane to fullback. Karl Lowe and Jack Lam are honest sevens, but the Canes will be hoping Ardie Savea rises to the challenge. Like the Blues, this team is also on the hunt for a quality lock.
Dream signing: Ma'a Nonu
The sunny-side up version that is. If, somehow, Hammett can find a way to forgive and forget, Nonu could help take the Canes to the next level. Sure, some days Nonu gets out on the wrong side of bed and isn't the most pleasant character. But if he's ever going to be motivated at Super Rugby it's for his home team. Conrad Smith's presence and leadership responsibilities could ensure Nonu buys into Hammett's vision. The world-class second-five hasn't enjoyed his time at the Blues and Highlanders. Deep down, he will realise this may be his last shot.
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