The five New Zealand Super 18 franchises have just named their squads and some contrasting and truly terrifying looking backlines will take the field in the 2017 season.
In backlines brimming with speed, power and skill, the question is: which one is shaping up as the most dangerous?
We take a look at the most likely starting options for each side and assess their strengths and weaknesses.
The Blues – The Power Rangers
Coach Tana Umaga’s men may have finished last among the New Zealand sides in the Super 18 last year, but they made significant progress in attitude and application. Umaga’s backline certainly won’t lack for power with a bone-shaking mix of midfield options with four current or former All Blacks to select from.
The prospect of a Sonny Bill Williams/Rieko Ioane midfield combination is hugely exciting, as would be a fully fit Rene Ranger adding his unpredictable genius from the midfield or wing. Melani Nanai provides dangerous incisions from fullback and also watch out for the highly promising 20-year-old Jordan Trainor, who has moved from Waikato for his first season with the Blues.
The one question about this monstrous backline is their ability to keep up in a fast-moving game on a dry track as they will encounter in Australia and South Africa. Will they be run off their feet?
Halfback: Augustine Pulu
Fly-half: Ihaia West
Midfield: Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, George Moala, Rene Ranger, Piers Francis
Wings: Rieko Ioane, George Moala, Rene Ranger, Declan O’Donnell
Fullback: Melani Nanai, Jordan Trainor
Strengths: Unrivalled power and excellent pace.
Weaknesses: Agility and fitness.
The Chiefs – The Rabbits
Where the Blues have power, the Chiefs have electric pace and skill. They have retained largely the same backline as last season, with the addition of the returning Samoan international, Tim Nanai-Williams. In Tony Pulu, Sam McNicol and Damian McKenzie, they have some of the quickest, if not the biggest players in the competition. McNicol caught the eye when he ran down the not too shabby when it comes to speed Beauden Barrett in last year’s semi-final.
A key player will be Charlie Ngatai, who returns after his last campaign was ended by serious concussion issues, ruling him out of the All Blacks squad. Ngatai provides the maturity and balance this exuberant Chiefs backline needs to not overplay its hand and try to score 90-metre tries on every move.
Last season the Chiefs scored some spectacular tries with X-factor players like McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown and James Lowe playing with joyous abandon and skill. However, as the stakes rose in the playoffs, other teams played a holding game, suffocating the space the Chiefs backs love, and feasting upon their mistakes from their impatience. Will the same issues damage them again?
Halfback: Brad Weber, Tawera Kerr-Barlow
Fly-half: Aaron Cruden
Midfield: Anton Lienert-Brown, Charlie Ngatai, Tim Nanai-Williams
Wings: James Lowe, Tim Nanai-Williams, Tony Pulu, Sam McNicol, Shaun Stevenson
Fullback: Damian McKenzie
Strengths: Dazzling speed and skills.
Weaknesses: Size, power and impatience.
The Hurricanes – The Freaks
This backline is truly something to get excited about. Perenara and Barrett are the All Black starting incumbents and the return of Nehe Milner-Skudder from injury at either wing or fullback adds another world-class freakish talent to the reigning Super 18 champion team.
Judging by his moves on the tennis court against Serena and Venus Williams, Julian Savea looks like a bus set for the fast lane this season and the other wing spot is a wide open tussle between the always classy veteran Cory Jane, nippy Wes Goosen and the powerful Ben Lam.
Last season critics identified the midfield as an area of weakness for the Canes, but Proctor, Laumape and Aso coped admirably and the area is strengthened further by the exciting addition of Jordie Barrett, the 19-year-old who will play for the first time with brother Beauden. Can anyone stop them going back to back?
Halfback: TJ Perenara
Fly-half: Beauden Barrett
Midfield: Jordie Barrett, Matt Proctor, Vince Aso, Ngani Laumape
Wings: Julian Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Cory Jane, Ben Lam, Wes Goosen
Fullback: Nehe Milner-Skudder, Jordie Barrett
Strengths: Power, pace, skills, steps… you name it.
Weaknesses: This search returns no results.
The Highlanders – The Heroes
What is it about watching the Highlanders that despite whatever other loyalty you might have, you always end up rooting for them in games? It could be the southern charm of characters like Matt Faddes and Richard Buckman, the flair of Lima Sopoaga or the never say die feistiness and skill of Aaron and Ben Smith.
The Highlanders certainly inspire love and loyalty among fans and players, as they have almost completely retained the same backline as 2016. One notable addition is Tevita Li, who has avoided the power jam in the Blues and will enjoy the precision and timing the Highlanders are famous for.
This backline will only get better with another season of experience together. But will that also make them more predictable?
Halfback: Aaron Smith
Fly-half: Lima Sopoaga
Midfield: Malakai Fekitoa, Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Rob Thompson
Wings: Waisake Naholo, Matt Faddes, Tevita Li, Patrick Osbourne, Rob Thompson
Fullback: Ben Smith
Strengths: Teamwork, pace, skill, precision
Weaknesses: Not many but perhaps need more explosive X-factor talent to compete with the Canes
The Crusaders – The Red Machine
The Crusaders potentially shape up as the weakest backline amongst the New Zealand teams. They suffered big losses in the departures of Nemani Nadolo and Johnny McNichol, and their failure in keeping Jordie Barrett means their squad depth and coverage across positions is limited.
The Crusaders have high class players in Richie Mo’unga at fly-half, Ryan Crotty in midfield and Israel Dagg, and a few promising up-and-comers in Jack Goodhue and George Bridge.
The addition of former Wallaby Digby Ioane as a replacement for Nadolo is a curious one, and it will be interesting to see how the 31-year-old adjusts to the increased intensity after a season in the Japanese league.
Seta Tamanivalu is another good signing for the Crusaders, and it will be important to see if they can settle on a smooth midfield combination to run off the dangerous Mo’unga.
Halfback: Mitchell Drummond, Bryn Hall
Fly-half: Richie Mo’unga
Midfield: Ryan Crotty, Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, David Havili
Wings: Digby Ioane, Jone Macilai, George Bridge
Fullback: Israel Dagg
Strengths: Strategy, accuracy, skill.
Weaknesses: Less explosive pace and flair then other teams, lack of squad depth.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena
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