Guide to 2014 National Provincial Championship
The NPC rugby competition kicks off tonight. Our rugby writers run their collective eyes over the 14 contenders.
Coach: Scott Robertson.
Key strength and key weakness: Winning six consecutive titles builds pressure - which can be a good and bad thing. Success builds self-belief but it also means everyone is motivated to kick the kings off their throne. That said, Canterbury will be favourites to make it seven in a row. Have lost some leadership and experience in the pack with the departures of captain George Whitelock and hooker Corey Flynn adding to the absence of a swag of All Blacks. First five-eighth Colin Slade's elevation to the All Blacks for Dan Carter is inconvenient.
Major gains: None.
Major losses: Andy Ellis (Japan), Jordan Taufua (Counties-Manukau), Whitelock (Japan), Flynn (France).
Match winner: Wing Patrick Osborne.
Rising star: Lock Scott Barrett.
2013 finish: Premiership champion.
Coaches: Chris Boyd, Richard Watt.
Key strength and key weakness: If the front row of props Eric Sione, Reggie Goodes and hooker Motu Matu'u stay fit and lock Jeremy Thrush isn't on All Blacks duty, the pack are capable of footing it with most teams. However, injury has severely weakened the Lions before a ball is kicked. They are particularly light at openside, in the halves, and at centre.
Major gains: Ope Peleseuma (Taranaki).
Major losses: Lima Sopoaga (Southland), Charlie Ngatai (Taranaki), Tim Bateman (Japan), Alapati Leiua (England), Riki Flutey (hamstring), Ardie Savea (shoulder), Jeffery Toomaga-Allen (knee), John Schwalger (blood clots).
Match winner: Fullback Jason Woodward.
Rising star: Lock Christian Lloyd.
2013 finish: Beaten finalist (Lost to Canterbury).
Coach: Paul Feeney.
Key strength and key weakness: Can score points, fast. Any coach would love this backline. This team could blow any team off the park. However, front-row is a concern. Questions hover over the willingness of the forward pack to do the grunt work. They need props Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Nick Barrett to come of age.
Major losses: Pauliasi Manu (Counties-Manukau), Angus Ta'avao (Taranaki), Luke Braid (injury).
Major gains: Gareth Anscombe (injury), Francis Saili (North Harbour), Ben Lam (sevens), Nick Barrett (Southland), Jack Whetton (Australia).
Match winner: Fullback/wing Lolagi Visinia.
Rising star: Wing Ben Lam.
2013 finish: Semifinalist (Lost to Canterbury).
Coach: Tana Umaga.
Key strength and key weakness: The number of players within the Counties-Manukau squad who now have Super Rugby experience should be a key strength. The return of Tim Nanai-Williams, who missed the 2013 season because of a groin injury, should provide even more spark to an exciting backline. If there is a weakness it could be their away form without the pressure of defending the Ranfurly Shield.
Major gains: Mike Lawrenson (South Africa), Onasai Auva'a (Sale Sharks), Jordan Taufua (Canterbury).
Major losses: Fritz Lee (France), Simon Lemalu (Australia), Hika Elliot (injury).
Match winner: Wing Frank Halai.
Rising star: Loose forward Jordan Taufua.
2013 finish: Semifinalists (lost to Wellington).
Coach: Johnny Walters.
Key strength and key weakness: The Mooloo men have speed to burn out wide in the form of New Zealand sevens rep Declan O'Donnell and Joe Webber, while they can rely on Chiefs big man Ben Tameifuna for some powerful scrummaging and carries. Apart from veteran Marty Holah though, the Waikato side is largely inexperienced and their composure will be tested.
Major gains: James McGougan (Bay of Plenty), David Morgan (Northland), Luke Katene (Canterbury), Albert Nikoro (Auckland), Jordan Payne (Auckland), Josh Hohneck (Bay of Plenty), Damian McKenzie (Christ's College), Anton Lienert-Brown (injury), Regan Ware (injury), Marty Holah (injury).
Major losses: Matt Vant Leven (Japan), Jackson Willison (France), Toby Smith (Melbourne), Paul Alo-Emile (Melbourne Rebels), Sam Christie (Italy), Rory Grice (France), Jack Lam (Japan), Tim Mickelson (Sevens), Trent Renata (Otago), Save Tokula (France).
Match winner: Wing Declan O'Donnell.
Rising star: First five-eighth Damian McKenzie
2013 finish: Fifth.
Coach: Colin Cooper.
Key strength and key weakness: The inside back and midfield combinations should be vastly improved from 2013, with Jamison Gibson-Park, Marty McKenzie, James Marshall and Charlie Ngatai expected to drive the attack and provide some space for the back three. Taranaki's weakness could be the lack of depth in their tight five, especially if they lose new Blues recruit Angus Ta'avao and Hurricanes lock James Broadhurst to injury.
Major gains: Charlie Ngatai (Wellington), Angus Ta'avao (Auckland), Mitchell Graham (Canterbury), Marty McKenzie (Southland).
Major losses: Jarrad Hoeata (Cardiff), Andre Taylor (Japan).
Match winner: Utility back Kurt Baker.
Rising star: Wing Seta Tamanivalu.
2013 finish: Sixth
Coach: Kieran Keane, Leon MacDonald.
Key strength and key weakness: Much to like in a team packed with Super Rugby players. Marty Banks provides the rudder again from No 10 though he'll miss early weeks with a knee inujury, while Liam Squire and Shane Christie are part of a stellar loose trio. Out wide Kieron Fonotia, Bryce Heem, Tom Marshall and James Lowe can all score in bunches. A question may hang over how the tight five adjust to life in the Premiership.
Major gains: Jimmy Cowan (Gloucester), Ross Geldenhuys (South Africa).
Major losses: None.
Match winner: Wing James Lowe.
Rising star: Loose forward Liam Squire.
2013 finish: Championship winners (Beat Hawke's Bay in the final to earn promotion).
Bay of Plenty
Coach: Kevin Schuler.
Key strength and key weakness: Strong up front, particularly in the tight five, but lacking experience in the backline. However, after an injury-hit 2013 season saw them relegated from the premiership they should have more depth in 2014.
Major gains: Teddy Stanaway (Auckland), Hamish Gosling (Manawatu), Jono Kitto (Canterbury), Dan Hollinshead (Tauranga Boys' College).
Major losses: Tanerau Latimer (Japan), Josh Hohneck (Waikato), Beau Robinson (Australia), Willie Ripia.
Match winner: Wing Tino Nemani.
Rising star: First-five-eighth Dan Hollinshead.
2013 finish: Seventh in Premiership (relegated)
Coaches: Craig Philpott, Danny Lee.
Key strength and key weakness: First five-eighth Ihaia West is coming off a brilliant Super Rugby debut season with the Blues and that will be huge for the Magpies. West has experience around him in Chiefs utility Andrew Horrell and veterans Matt Berquist and Jason Shoemark. Up front, hookers Ash Dixon and Ged Robinson show the depth of the pack, but there isn't a lot of proven fire power out wide.
Major gains: Robbie Fruean (Canterbury), Gareth Evans (Otago), Jason Marshall (Canada), Berquist (Italy), Shoemark (England).
Major losses: Telusa Veainu (Australia), Mike Coman (Edinburgh), Gillies Kaka (sevens), Zac Guildford (France).
Match winner: Centre Robbie Fruean.
Rising star: Openside Tony Lamborn.
2013 finish: Beaten finalist. (Lost to Tasman).
Coach: Tony Brown.
Key strength and key weakness: Expect Otago to again be a well-drilled and committed unit under coach Tony Brown. First five-eighth Hayden Parker will also provide them with a good general. However Otago do lack fire power on attack, with the loss of Fumiaki Tanaka's quick distribution skills at halfback a major setback.
Major gains: Trent Renata (Waikato).
Major losses: Buxton Popali'i (retired), Tanaka (Japan), Peter Grant (France), Gareth Evans (Hawke's Bay), Tom Donnelly (France).
Match winner: First five-eighth Hayden Parker.
Rising star: Midfielder Michael Collins.
2013 finish: Semifinalist (lost to Hawke's Bay).
Coach: Brad Mooar.
Key strength and key weakness: The loose forward trio of Tim Boys, John Hardie and Elliot Dixon have the ability and experience to have a real impact for the Stags in their push for promotion. Southland have also been bolstered with Highlanders first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga a big off-season signing. However, there is a lack of depth in the Southland setup and any injuries to key players does have the potential to derail their season.
Major gains: Lima Sopoaga (Wellington), Mark Jackman (Hawke's Bay/sevens), Lolohea Loco (Counties-Manukau).
Major losses: Robbie Robinson (injury), Marty McKenzie (Taranaki), Nick Barrett (Auckland), David Hall (retired).
Match winner: First five-eighth Lima Sopoaga.
Rising star: Loose forward Bill Fukofuka.
2013 finish: Semifinalist (lost to Tasman).
Coaches: Jason O'Halloran, Jeremy Cotter.
Key strength and key weakness: Full of Manawatu culture with the bulk of the Turbos picked from the club competition. If everyone stays fit there is a ton of attacking skill in the backline provided the forwards can provide sound ball from scrums and lineouts. Strong at home, they must also find a way to start winning away games.
Major gains: Keepa Mewett (Bay of Plenty), Otere Black (age grades), Tim Cadwallader (under 20s).
Major losses: Tomasi Cama (sevens), Asaeli Tikoirotuma (Harlequins), Nic Stirzaker (Melbourne), Hamish Gosling (Bay of Plenty).
Match winner: Centre Jason Emery.
Rising star: Wing Newton Tudreu.
2013 finish: Fifth.
Coach: Derren Witcombe.
Key strength and key weakness: Flair and flamboyance - the Taniwha have nothing to lose and expect them to play like it. Fijian wing Jone Macilai Tori dislocated his elbow last year, but with a sub-five second 50-metre sprint is a try-scoring matchine. However, they lost five games by 10 points or less last season. Can't afford a similar record. Must adopt some composure and learn how to win the tight games.
Major losses: Rupeni Caucaunibuca (France), Rene Ranger (France).
Major gains: Winston Stanley (Australia).
Match winner: Wing Jone Macilai Tori.
Rising star: Flanker Dan Pryor.
2013 finish: Sixth.
Coach: Steve Jackson.
Key strength and key weakness: Can't get any worse, having won eight from 42 games in the last four years. Provided they get some front-foot ball, Harbour's backs are dangerous. Defence and self-belief are potential issues. If they are to finally lift themselves from last place Harbour can't afford to concede the second most points (330), as they did last year. This side also needs to believe they can win. Half the challenge is about attitude.
Major losses: Francis Saili (Auckland).
Major gains: Matt McGahan (rugby league), Hayden Triggs (Japan), Robbie Robinson (Southland).
Match winner: Wing Tevita Li.
Rising star: Halfback Bryn Hall.
2013 finish: Seventh.