Title hopefuls among NZ Super Rugby teams

If Super Rugby taught anything last year, it’s the folly of pre-season predictions.

The Highlanders defied all manner of odds and forecasts to win a maiden title.

Their team of no-names and nomads peaked in the closing weeks, out-enthusing the more favoured Chiefs, Waratahs and Hurricanes in a heady play-off run.

They won’t be taken lightly this year by the other 17 teams in an expanded competition which features a multi-tiered conference system.

There are new sides from Japan, Argentina and South Africa’s Kings are back.

But it’s the 10-team Australasian group where the competition’s best winning prospects reside.

New Zealand teams have claimed 13 of the 20 Super Rugby titles and all five boast reasons to be optimistic.

The Highlanders have only tweaked their loose forwards from last year and can now even boast an All Black in their pack with the arrival of one-Test No.8 Luke Whitelock.

Their big men have proved that hard graft works, while the backline oozes star power – from halves Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga to an outside division boasting Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith.

The Hurricanes will still be stinging from their grand final mugging, having dominated the regular season with a record-setting 14 wins.

The only Kiwi team without a title, they’ll need to find replacements for midfield alliance Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, along with tight five rocks Jeremy Thrush and Ben Franks.

They’ll be tough to beat again if second-year coach Chris Boyd taps into their confidence levels and reproduces the same all-purpose playing style as 2015.

The Chiefs reached the play-offs last year but by then were crippled by injury so fell short of a third crown.

Sevens converts Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam are gone but they have a deep squad and the return to fitness of Aaron Cruden is of immeasurable importance.

The Crusaders placed sixth overall but missed the play-offs for the first time in 14 seasons because of the conference system’s quirks.

Departing coach Todd Blackadder is still chasing his first title and must do so without franchise legends Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.

Their forward pack is still imposing but shedding their slow-starters’ tag will be imperative.

Tana Umaga is the only new Kiwi coach and he has a giant rebuilding job on his hands at the Blues.

Fourteenth place last year, with just three wins, was a franchise low and the axe fell on Sir John Kirwan.

Umaga’s inexperienced team have impressed in the pre-season and boast the sort of physicality right through their team to suggest their long-suffering fans may find reason to smile this year.

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