Super Rugby Aotearoa is a 10-week competition involving New Zealand’s five Super Rugby clubs – the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders – playing each other home and away.
The competition was developed with the approval of the New Zealand Government and in consultation with Sanzaar after the 2020 Super Rugby season was suspended on 15 March due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The tournament has been boosted by the news that New Zealand has no current cases of Covid-19 and has not recorded a new infection in 18 days and there will be no limit of crowd size.
The decision of the New Zealand government to drop all restrictions on the size of public gatherings means social distancing is no longer required and sports can take place in full stadiums.
With bumper crowds expected, we take a look at how the teams are placed heading into the competition.
The headlines may have been dominated by the Blues, but can they deliver?
The signing of Dan Carter was the latest coup for the Auckland-based side who will certainly have a target on their backs heading into the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
Carter, 38, will probably not feature until round four of the tournament, but his experience will do wonders for the Blues squad.
They may not have won the regular Super Rugby trophy since 2003 but before the tournament was suspended, the Blues were flying high.
A major issue for them has been their inability to beat the other New Zealand franchises and they were on an unacceptable 25-match losing streak away to the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Highlanders and the Chiefs.
However, in 2020 they have won five of their seven games – including a win over the Hurricanes in Wellington to end that losing streak – and were second on the New Zealand conference.
The Blues have got some serious depth at fly-half with Carter and Beauden Barrett who bring a star quality, as well as Otere Black also in contention.
The Blues backline is impressive with plenty of options including Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Joe Marchant who will relish the exceptional playmaking skills of Barrett and Carter. Also look out for winger Mark Telea who has been on fire for them this season.
The forwards have a job to make sure they secure enough ball to allow their backs to attack and have shown they are up for the task.
Ably led by lock Patrick Tuipulotu, Blues fans have reason to be excited heading into the competition.
BLUES SQUAD: Alex Hodgman, Ezekiel Lindenmuth, Sione Mafileo, Marcel Renata, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, James Parsons, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Josh Goodhue, Jacob Pierce, Patrick Tuipulotu, Tom Robinson, Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu, Sam Nock, Jonathan Ruru, Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta, Harry Plummer, TJ Faiane, Tamati Tua, Caleb Clarke, Matt Duffie, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Findlay Christie, Kurt Eklund, Tony Lamborn, Emoni Narawa, Luteru Tolai, Mark Telea, Aaron Carroll, Joe Marchant, Jack Heighton, Waimana Reidlinger-Kapa, Jordan Hyland, Jared Page, Dan Carter (injury replacement).
June 14: Blues vs Hurricanes, Eden Park
June 20: Blues vs Chiefs, FMG Stadium Waikato
June 27: Blues vs Highlanders, Eden Park
July 11: Blues vs Crusaders, Orangetheory Stadium
July 18: Blues vs Hurricanes, Sky Stadium
July 26: Blues vs Chiefs, Eden Park
August 2: Blues vs Highlanders, Forsyth Barr Stadium
August 16: Blues vs Crusaders, Eden Park
The Chiefs were developing nicely under new coach Warren Gatland and were third on the New Zealand conference table before the lockdown. They kicked off their season with two strong wins against the Blues and the Crusaders but would have been frustrated with their three-point loss to the Hurricanes in round seven.
Injuries have been a concern for the Chiefs but the break has allowed the likes of prop Nepo Laulala to fully recover. Their back row has been impressive this season – newly named All Blacks skipper Sam Cane has been at his best while Lachlan Boshier has really stood out with his work at the breakdown.
Aaron Cruden pulls the strings nicely for them at No 10 and, like all Kiwi teams, they have a rapier-like attack in the backs. The Chiefs have scored some quite sensational tries through the likes of Anton Lienert-Brown, Damian McKenzie, Solomon Alaimalo and Brad Weber.
CHIEFS SQUAD: Nathan Harris, Bradley Slater, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Donald Maka, Ryan Coxon, Nepo Laulala, Atunaisa Moli, Reuben O’Neill, Aidan Ross, Angus Ta’avao, Ross Geldenhuys, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Tyler Ardron, Michael Allardice, Laghlan McWhannell, Lachlan Boshier, Mitchell Brown, Sam Cane, Pita Gus Sowakula, Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Karpik, Dylan Nel, Adam Thompson, Tupou Vaai, Simon Parker, Lisati Milo-Harris, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Brad Weber, Aaron Cruden, Tiaan Falcon, Damian McKenzie, Kaleb Trask, Orbyn Leger, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tumua Manu, Alex Nankivell, Bailyn Sullivan, Solomon Alaimalo, Sam McNicol, Kini Naholo, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Shaun Stevenson, Quinn Tupaea, Sean Wainui.
June 13: Chiefs vs Highlanders, Forsyth Barr Stadium
June 20: Chiefs vs Blues, FMG Stadium Waikato
June 28: Chiefs vs Crusaders, Orangetheory Stadium
July 5: Chiefs vs Hurricanes, FMG Stadium Waikato
July 19: Chiefs vs Highlanders, FMG Stadium Waikato
July 26: Chiefs vs Blues, Eden Park
August 1: Chiefs vs Crusaders, FMG Stadium Waikato
August 8: Chiefs vs Hurricanes, Sky Stadium Wellington
Definitely the team to beat and they will make the most of their bye from the first weekend by studying how the new rules will impact the game.
The most successful team in Super Rugby, the Crusaders have won 10 tiles in all, including the last three. They will certainly be looking to add the first Super Rugby Aotearoa title to their trophy cabinet.
Once again they were leading the way in the Super Rugby comp – they had won six of their seven games with their only loss coming against the Chiefs.
Their squad is packed full of talent with the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhue, Scott Barrett and Codie Taylor well established in the All Blacks set-up. Sam Whitelock is also back in Crusaders colours, returning from Japan after the cancellation of the Japan League.
They have no shortages of second rowers though as youngster Cullen Grace has been a massive hit in his first season of Super Rugby. Also look out for flanker Tom Christie and Ethan Blackadder -the latter returning after a long injury lay off.
CRUSADERS SQUAD: Andrew Makalio, Brodie McAlister, Codie Taylor, Michael Alaalatoa, Harry Allan, George Bower, Oliver Jager, Joe Moody, Isileli Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Mitchell Dunshea, Luke Romano, Quinten Strange, Samuel Whitelock, Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Cullen Grace, Billy Harmon, Sione Havili Talitui, Ethan Roots, Tom Sanders, Mitchell Drummond, Ereatara Enari, Bryn Hall, Fergus Burke, Brett Cameron, Richie Mo’unga, Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue, Dallas McLeod, George Bridge, David Havili, Inga Finau, Will Jordan, Manasa Mataele, Fetuli Paea, Leicester Faingaanuku, Sevu Reece
June 21: Crusaders vs Hurricanes, Sky Stadium Wellington
June 28: Crusaders vs Chiefs, Orangetheory Stadium Christchurch
July 4: Crusaders vs Highlanders, Forsyth Barr Stadium Dunedin
July 11: Crusaders vs Blues, Orangetheory Stadium Christchurch
July 25: Crusaders vs Hurricanes, Orangetheory Stadium Christchurch
August 1: Crusaders vs Chiefs, FMG Stadium Waikato
August 9: Crusaders vs Highlanders, Orangetheory Stadium Christchurch
August 16: Crusaders vs Blues, Eden Park
Their 2020 Super Rugby campaign did not quite go to plan as they only won one of their six matches and were at the bottom of the NZ conference.
However, they had lost plenty of players with the likes of Ben Smith, Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock and Waisake Naholo moving on.
They have some promising talent and while they may be the underdogs, they certainly have the potential to cause an upset or two.
A big signing for them is Nehe Milner-Skudder who not only brings his wealth of experience but is a pretty potent strike weapon. In fact the Highlanders have plenty of options out wide including Tevita Nabura and Jona Nareki.
Aaron Smith will also be key for them at No 9 as will his partnership with whoever gets the No 10 jersey. Mitch Hunt has started at fly-half with Josh Ioane in the No 12 jersey but Ioane looks set to revert to his favoured position at No.10. Bryn Gatland is also an option for them.
Smith will expect a lot from his pack and it is here where the Highlanders may struggle. Hooker Liam Coltman and flanker Shannon Frizel will certainly need to lead from the front to give their backs some ball to do some damage.
HIGHLANDERS SQUAD: Ash Dixon, Liam Coltman, Ricky Jackson, Ethan de Groot, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Jeff Thwaites, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Jack Whetton, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Shannon Frizel, Dillon Hunt, Zane Kapeli, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Sione Misiloi, Jesse Parete, Folau Fakatava, Kayne Hammington, Aaron Smith, Bryn Gatland, Mitchell Hunt, Josh Ioane, Michael Collins, Ngane Punivai, Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Scott Gregory, Chris Kuridrani, Josh McKay, Tevita Nabura, Jona Nareki, Connor Garden-Bachop, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Vilimoni Koroi, Sam Gilbert, Nehe Milner-Skudder.
June 13: Highlanders vs Chiefs, Forsyth Barr Stadium
June 27: Highlanders vs Blues, Eden Park
July 4: Highlanders vs Crusaders, Forsyth Barr Stadium
July 12: Highlanders vs Hurricanes, Sky Stadium
July 19: Highlanders vs Chiefs, FMG Stadium Waikato
August 2: Highlanders vs Blues, Forsyth Barr Stadium
August 9: Highlanders vs Crusaders, Orangetheory Stadium
August 15: Highlanders vs Hurricanes, Forsyth Barr Stadium
Ardie Savea is back in business for the ‘Canes and will be a massive boost for them. The talented backrower was ruled out for six months after the World Cup with a knee injury.
With Gareth Evans, Du’Plessis Kirifi and Vaea Fifita also in the squad, the ‘Canes have some very strong back row options and early signs are that Savea will be wearing the No.8 jersey.
The tight five is also looking decent and in the front row they have some promising props in Xavier Numia and Alex Fidow alongside grizzled veteran Ben May. Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli and Asafo Amua will compete for the No. 2 jersey.
They also have some talent in the backline – the combination of Ngani Laumape, TJ Perenara, Ben Lam and Jordie Barrett is sure to produce some scintillating attacking rugby.
A slight concern is who will orchestrate that magnificent backline? Jackson Garden-Bachop, James Marshall and Fletcher Smith are promising talents but are not in the league of a Beauden Barrett or a Richie Mo’unga. However if there is one man who can get the best out of them, it is assistant coach Carlos Spencer.
HURRICANES SQUAD: Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli, Fraser Armstrong, Alex Fidow, Tyrel Lomax, Ben May, Xavier Numia, Pouri Rakete-Stones, James Blackwell, Devan Flanders, Kane Leaupepe (currently injured), Tevita Mafileo, Liam Mitchell, Scott Scrafton, Isaia Walker-Leaware, Gareth Evans, Vaea Fifita, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Reed Prinsep, Ardie Savea, Murphy Taramai Jamie Booth, TJ Perenara, Jonathan Taumateine, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Fletcher Smith, Vince Aso, Jordie Barrett, Ngani Laumape, Jonah Lowe, Billy Proctor, Danny Toala, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Kobus van Wyk, Wes Goosen, Ben Lam, Salesi Rayasi, Chase Tiatia
June 14: Hurricanes vs Blues, Eden Park
June 21: Hurricanes vs Crusaders, Sky Stadium
July 5: Hurricanes vs Chiefs, FMG Stadium Waikato
July 12: Hurricanes vs Highlanders, Sky Stadium
July 18: Hurricanes vs Blues, Sky Stadium
July 25: Hurricanes vs Crusaders, Orangetheory Stadium