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Super Rugby 2020: New Zealand conference preview

The list of departures across New Zealand's five franchises reads like a who's who of rugby's biggest names.

There are also two new coaches and a handful of player moves.

So who takes out conference honours? Read on as we evaluate each team's chances below.

BLUES

Coach: Leon MacDonald

Captain: Patrick Tuipulotu

Last year: Insert broken record here. 2019 proved to be just another year when the Blues threatened improvement but again proved to be the same mediocre outfit of old. Having replaced Tana Umaga as head coach, Leon MacDonald was unable to make any real impact in his first season in charge as the Blues stuttered to a 5-10-1 season that saw them finish in 13th place. Six of those defeats came by seven points or less, yet the Blues were winless on the road as their woes against fellow New Zealand franchises, in particular, continued. They certainly had some issues with injury, Sonny Bill Williams, Stephen Perofeta and Patrick Tuipulotu were all among those to be cut down while All Blacks rest weeks also hindered continuity. Not having the depth of their fellow Kiwi franchises, the Blues struggled as a result, though back-rower Tom Robinson was one player to shine through amid the all-too-familiar dross.

This year: What's the value of one new player on a perennially underachieving and seemingly lost team? It all depends on that one player, of course, and it certainly helps that the Blues have gone out and got themselves two-time World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett. Don't for a second think Barrett will slot into fullback as he did with the All Blacks, the Blues have brought him on to solve their playmaking woes. They will have to wait a few weeks, though, as Barrett takes an extended break after a punishing 2019. Can MacDonald whip the rest of the squad into shape before Barrett's arrival? There is no shortage of talented backs and forwards - the Ioane brothers, Robinson, Dalton Papali'i, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Caleb Clarke and Co. - to work with and a deeper dive into the Blues stats show their defence was sound in 2019. You're doing something right when you miss the least amount of tackles and concede the fifth least tries in the competition ... no pressure on Barrett to provide the attacking spark, then.

Draw: Chiefs [H], Waratahs [A], Crusaders [H], Bulls [A], Stormers [A], Hurricanes [A], Lions [H], Brumbies [H], Bye, Crusaders [A], Hurricanes [H], Jaguares [H], Rebels [A], Highlanders [A], Chiefs [A], Bye, Highlanders [H].

Predicted conference finish: Fourth

CHIEFS

Coach: Warren Gatland

Captain: Sam Cane

Last year: Considering they lost fly-half Damian McKenzie midway through the competition and were without star flanker Sam Cane until the closing weeks of the regular season, the Chiefs did incredibly well to reach the quarterfinals. And they went close to knocking off the Jaguares on the road, too, only a spirited late defensive effort from the hosts denying them a second win in Buenos Aires for the year and an unlikely semifinal spot. Scrum-half Brad Weber was a standout throughout the year while Luke Jacobson put himself on the All Blacks radar only for concussion to later ruin the back-rower's World Cup dream. All in all, outgoing Chiefs coach Colin Cooper could be proud with how his side performed against the odds during a season when star lock Brodie Retallick was also in and out of the team.

This year: Heard of a bloke by the name of Warren Gatland? Ring any bells? Yes, the veteran Wales and British & Irish Lions coach has at last returned home to New Zealand, fittingly slotting back into the black, red and yellow colours he wore as a player. He's brought Aaron Cruden with him, too, the former All Blacks fly-half returning to the Chiefs after a mixed run in France. Cruden's return means a likely shift back to fullback for McKenzie and the completion of a brilliant backline that will also include Weber, All Blacks centre Anton Lienert-Brown and array of fleet-footed finishes including Sean Wainui, Solomon Alaimano, Etene Nanai-Seturo and Shaun Stevenson. They will however be without Retallick due to his move to Japan but the pack otherwise has a nice blend of All Blacks experience, in Cane, Angus Ta'avoa and Atu Moli, as well as workers Lachlan Boshier, Pita Gus Sowakula and Tyler Ardron. If McKenzie can rediscover his best on return from ACL surgery than the Chiefs have the squad to vie for New Zealand conference honours. The unknown is just what style of rugby Gatland is hoping to play; Chiefs fans will be hoping it is slightly more attractive than that of his final game in charge of Wales - the dour World Cup semifinal loss to South Africa.

Draw: Blues [A], Crusaders [H], Sunwolves [A], Brumbies [H], Bye, Waratahs [A], Hurricanes [H], Sharks [A], Lions [A], Bulls [H], Highlanders [A], Bye, Stormers [H], Hurricanes [A], Highlanders [H], Blues [H], Rebels [H], Crusaders [A].

Predicted conference finish: First

CRUSADERS

Coach: Scott Robertson

Captain: Scott Barrett

Last year: What is there left to say about Scott Robertson's Crusaders that hasn't already been said? Three years for three titles: The red-and-black juggernaut of the 2000s rose again late in the next decade, the only surprise being that title success came after the departures of a certain All Blacks duo of McCaw and Carter. The Crusaders' 2019 triumph may have been the toughest yet, though, not purely for the fact it came amid a swathe of All Blacks rest weeks but also the fierce debate that engulfed the franchise following the Christchurch terror attacks. There were also some off-field misdemeanours in South Africa. Yet Robertson was somehow able to steer his side to first place after the regular season and while the Hurricanes and Jaguares took some beating in the semi- and final respectively, the championship writing was seemingly always on the wall. Richie Mo'unga, Jack Goodhue and Sevu Reece were all brilliant in the backline while the "Rolls Royce" pack, as it was once dubbed by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, did its usual business up front. Having signalled his intention to be Hansen's All Blacks replacement, Robertson met with the hiring panel in November. He was overlooked. Good news for the Crusaders and bad for the All Blacks? History will be the judge of that.

This year: Robertson may be back but Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty, Owen Franks, Matt Todd, Sam Whitelock and Jordan Taufua have all bid goodbye to a franchise to whom they gave so much. That's a chunk of class, let alone experience, leaving the Crusaders with quite the hole to fill in 2020. Thankfully, few talent streams come better than that owned by the 10-time champions. Robertson will have a number of fresh troops to mould in his own special way, and he still has the key cog in Mo'unga to coordinate a game plan around. The name debate, too, is now settled - the logo altered but name intact - so it should all be about the rugby and a pursuit of a fourth straight title over the next few months. The draw has been kind - the Crusaders don't leave New Zealand until Round 7 and then it is only away to the Sunwolves in Tokyo - so there is a real opportunity to set the season up early. But there is no doubting that this will be Robertson's greatest challenge in Christchurch. The question must also be asked: Has the coach outgrown a team he returned to its glory and then some?

Draw: Waratahs [H], Chiefs [A], Blues [A], Highlanders [H], Bye, Reds [H], Sunwolves [A], Hurricanes [H], Highlanders [A], Blues [H], Bye, Rebels [A], Jaguares [H], Stormers [H] , Hurricanes [A], Lions [A], Sharks [A], Chiefs [H]

Predicted conference finish: Second

HIGHLANDERS

Coach: Aaron Mauger

Captain: James Lentjes

Last year: The Highlanders scraped into the quarterfinals with a bonus-point victory in Round 18 after an inconsistent season that never really found any momentum. Two wins to start the year were quickly followed by five losses and a no-contest - their game against the Crusaders was cancelled - before they righted the ship with three wins and a draw from their next four. But it fell away again from there, with only their 37-point thumping of the Waratahs ensuring their season extended one further week - that was despite winning two fewer games than the ninth-placed Lions. But there was good news in the emergence of fly-half Josh Ioane who was called up for an All Blacks debut against Tonga later in the year. Ioane looked accomplished at No. 10, but the Highlanders missed back-rower Liam Squire, who played just three games all season, so too fellow All Blacks Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo who were kept to just nine and eight matches each.

This year: Plenty of quality Test players have moved on from Super Rugby across its 15 franchises, but few face the rebuilding challenge the Highlanders are faced with in 2020. Gone are: Ben Smith, Squire, Naholo, Jackson Hemopo, Luke Whitelock, Elliot Dixon, Tevita Li, Matt Faddes and Tom Franklin; each man having made a lasting contribution to a franchise that enjoyed a successful last decade. Fortunately, All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith remains and he will be vital in continuing the "Brotherhood" legacy of his former teammates alongside skipper James Lentjes, Rob Thompson and Liam Coltman, and the impressive Shannon Frizell and Dillon Hunt. Former Crusaders first-five Mitchell Hunt has headed south to put pressure on Ioane, though Mauger has already signalled the latter could shift to either 12 or 15 in a dual-playmaker system that engulfed New Zealand rugby elsewhere in 2019. But there is likely to be an adjustment period for the new troops and just how long they take to settle into Super Rugby will be the chief factor as to whether the Highlanders see postseason footy.

Draw: Bye, Sharks [H], Brumbies [A], Crusaders [A], Rebels [H], Bulls [A], Jaguares [A], Lions [H], Crusaders [H], Bye, Chiefs [H], Hurricanes [A], Reds [A], Blues [H], Chiefs [A], Hurricanes [H], Sunwolves [H], Blues [A]

Predicted conference finish: Fifth

HURRICANES

Coach: Jason Holland

Captain: TJ Perenara, Dane Coles

Last year: No side will likely bid a fonder farewell to the conference system than the Hurricanes. They were again the victims of the inequitable format after finishing fourth on the ladder, despite their 53-point tally being inferior only to the Crusaders. After seeing off the Bulls in the quarterfinals, the Hurricanes then fell just short of the defending champions in Christchurch; the Crusaders triumphing 30-26 in a match that befitted a final. The Hurricanes had otherwise enjoyed a stellar regular season despite the variety of All Blacks rest weeks, their 12 victories one more than the eventual three-peat champions. They again played a scintillating brand of attacking rugby, finishing inside the top three across for tries, run metres, line breaks and tackle busts; Ngani Laumape and Ben Lam picking up 13 and nine five-pointers for the year respectively. The Hurricanes' defence was also sound; the only real hole to pick in their efforts the fact they were the equal-fourth most penalised team.

This year: You would have had to have been living under a rock to have missed the fact that Beauden Barrett has departed the franchise where he made his name and has headed north to Auckland. That has left a two-time-World-Rugby-Player-of-the-Year-sized hole in Wellington, one they failed to fill when Barrett was resting in 2019. That responsibility will again fall to either Fletcher Smith or Jackson Garden-Bachop while star flanker Ardie Savea will be sidelined for at least the opening month of competition. The Canes still have an abundance of quality in their squad, but you get the feeling they could just come back to the pack a little without Barrett and, initially, Savea. Skippers TJ Perenara and Dane Coles remain among the world's best in their positions while Vaea Fifita still is only scratching the surface; the Canes also retain all kinds of strike power out wide. Jason Holland is only a few months in the head coaching role so the fact the Hurricanes begin their season on the road in Cape Town and then Buenos Aires may actually be a blessing; get out of those games with even six points and some early question marks over their ability to contend may soon evaporate.

Draw: Stormers [A], Jaguares [A], Sharks [H], Bye, Sunwolves [H], Blues [H], Chiefs [A], Crusaders [A], Bulls [H], Brumbies [A], Blues [A], Highlanders [H], Bye, Chiefs [H], Crusaders [H], Highlanders [A] Reds [A], Waratahs [H].

Predicted conference finish: Third