Are you expecting the New Zealand sides to dominate in the same way they did last year?
GP: Probably, but maybe not quite to the same extent when it comes to final positions on the table. An improved Blues side may increase the cannibalisation within the New Zealand Conference. It could end up that with the New Zealand teams dominating the South Africans and Australians, but also taking too many points off one another for four teams to make the playoffs as happened last year.
PM: Yes, and from the start. Other teams hoping to catch Kiwi teams out early might have looked at the quality of players named for their team’s final pre-season hit-outs recently – including Ben Smith and Aaron Smith for the Highlanders and Israel Dagg for the Crusaders – with a sense of disquiet. The Lions are coming in June, but many of the All Blacks appear eager to impress from round one of the Super Rugby season.
Last year four New Zealand teams made the top eight; with the squad the Blues have named, Tana Umaga’s men could make it this season, too.
2. Is there any New Zealand player that you think will emerge as a potential surprise All Black candidate before June?
GP: Hard to see that happening. The All Blacks cast their net fairly wide last year ” discovering the likes of Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane and Scott Barrett. Might not be a case of finding a new star, but instead gaining confirmation that players such as Damian McKenzie, Nepo Laulala and Lima Sopoaga are all going to be good longer-term test prospects.
PM: The All Blacks’ depth and succession planning is such that it’s unlikely there will be a surprise as such, but Jordie Barrett has the potential to take the competition by storm for the Hurricanes. Barrett, an “apprentice” on last year’s All Blacks northern tour, has a fair bit of physical development to come, but the 1.96m tall 19-year-old, who can play in the midfield or at fullback, has the ability to create time and space and has a big future. Barrett caught the eye for the Hurricanes in their helter-skelter pre-season victory over the Blues. Like his brother Beauden he’s often a calming presence amid chaos.