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The Crusaders apart, New Zealand's Super Rugby teams kick off the season this weekend in what shapes as the closest competition so far. Toby Robson casts his eye over the Kiwi conference and makes his predictions for 2013.
Key gains: Ben Franks, Ardie Savea
Key losses: Cory Jane (injury), Charlie Ngatai
The big questions: Are they ready to step up? Players such as Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and T J Perenara aren't rookies any more, but will they get second-year blues? Can they fix a defence that didn't match the attack last year and has been leaky again in the pre-season? Is the scrum finally a weapon?
Key man: Beauden Barrett has the ability to complement the running game, but rein it in when necessary.
Watch out for: Ardie Savea. A prodigious talent at openside with rare pace, strength and determination.
Last year: 8th (3rd NZC), (W-10, L-6)
Key gains: Bundee Aki
Key losses: Sonny Bill Williams, Sona Taumalolo, Kane Thompson
The big questions: Was SBW's go-forward and X-factor the real reason for last year's title? Without him and the injury-prone Richard Kahui, will the midfield go from a strength to a weakness? Can Andrew Horrell kick on to prove he's the best utility back in the country?
Key man: Aaron Cruden. A classy operator and arguably the best running 10 in the game, but he won't have it so easy without SBW.
Watch out for: Toby Smith. An explosive and high-energy prop.
Last year: Champions. (1st NZC), (W-12, L-4)
Key gains: Johnny McNicholl, Dominic Bird, Jordan Taufua
Key losses: Richie McCaw (until early July), Zac Guildford, Sean Maitland, Ben Franks
The big questions: Are the Crusaders a fading force? Is McCaw's absence a psychological blow? Is propping depth an issue? Is Robbie Fruean going to finally realise his full potential?
Key man: Kieran Read. The No 8 is the closest thing in rugby to McCaw. If Read's team-mates follow his example, the title-machine could rediscover its rhythm.
Watch out for: Johnny McNicholl. An elusive outside back with plenty of upside and a nose for the try line.
Last year: 4th (2nd NZC), (W-11, L-5)
Key gains: Ma'a Nonu, Brad Thorn, Tony Woodcock
Key losses: Tamati Ellison (injury), Adam Thomson, Mike Delany, Jimmy Cowan, Chris Noakes, James Haskell
The big questions: Will the stars gel or are they all down south for the cash? Will coach Jamie Joseph push too hard, too early and another promising campaign falter mid-season? Can Colin Slade make an impact after his latest return from injury? And is there enough depth in the loose forwards?
Key man: Joseph. If the coach can manage his stable on and off the field then the sky is the limit.
Watch out for: John Hardie. Injury cut short his season last year, but the openside could be an influential figure.
Last year: 9th, (4th NZC), (W-9, L-7)
Key gains: Baden Kerr, Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo, Frank Halai
Key losses: Nonu, Woodcock, Alby Mathewson, Michael Hobbs, Gareth Anscombe, Isaia Toeava, Rudi Wulf, Jerome Kaino, Daniel Braid
The big questions: Can this young team maintain energy through a long campaign? Is Ali Williams the right man to lead or a spent force? Is Charles Piutau as good as he looks? Baden Kerr a hidden gem? Is the scrum up to it?
Key man: Piri Weepu. The halfback is the rudder for a team big on potential, but light on experience in key areas. If he loses his way, the Blues will follow.
Watch out for: Peter Saili. A huge talent, literally and figuratively, he has the ability to stamp his mark off the back of the Blues scrum.
Last year: 12th (5th NZC), (W-4, L-12)
Playoff pick: The Brumbies. The arrival of openside David Pocock is a biggie, while fullback Jesse Mogg looks a player in the mould of the great Stephen Larkham.
Next best: The Waratahs. Israel Folau adds excitement behind a decent pack, but there are no top-class halves, while the Reds will suffer until halfback Will Genia returns.
Playoff picks: Stormers. Bolstered by some Lions off-cuts and still possessing the core of a vastly experienced side led by flanker Schalk Burger and second five-eighth Jean de Villiers. Sharks. With the grunt of the du Plessis boys up front and captained by midfielder Frans Steyn, the boys from Durban look as strong as last year.
Next best: The Bulls and Cheetahs will be difficult at home.
- The Dominion Post
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