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Preview: Super Signing Day

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018    allblacks.com    Getty Images

It might be Halloween that day, but the only thing in store for rugby fans is a big treat with all five New Zealand Super Rugby clubs naming their 38-man squads for the 2019 season. From Mitre 10 Cup bolters, to returning players from overseas, and young players from the age-group system, each team is sure to have selections that will equally raise eye brows and set pulses racing.

Let’s take a look how each team is shaping up ahead of Super Signing Day.

Hurricanes
Super Rugby titles: 1 (2016)
Last season: Second in NZ conference. Losing semifinalist.
Coaching team: John Plumtree (Head Coach), Carlos Spencer (Assistant Coach), Jason Holland (Assistant Coach) Richard Watt (Forwards Coach), Dan Cron (Scrum Coach)
Tale of the Tape: The Hurricanes have been one of the biggest threats in Super Rugby over the past few seasons with a final appearance in 2015, a maiden title win in 2016 and semifinal appearances in 2017 and 2018. There is the sense of a new era at the Hurricanes though with coach Chris Boyd and loose forward lynch pin Brad Shields now plying their trade in the UK. The Hurricanes looked unstoppable at one point in the 2018 season before losing four games towards the end of the season which resulted in a tougher finals run and eventual semifinal exit to the Crusaders.
Key performers in 2018: The undoubted star out wide for the Hurricanes was rampaging wing Ben Lam who broke the all-time Super Rugby try scoring record with 16 tries in a single season. Whether showcasing his power close to the line or searing speed in space, Lam was a constant threat in 2018. In the pack, Ricky Riccitelli was a consistent performer. With All Blacks Dane Coles and Asafo Aumua in the squad, Riccitelli may have been wondering how much game time he would see in the season. But due to injuries and fitness issues to the All Blacks pair, Riccitelli ended up playing 18 games and topped the Hurricanes tackle count with 201 tackles in the season.
Position of Interest: Perhaps the most keenly watched position when the Hurricanes name their squad on 31 October will be prop. In Ricky Riccitelli, Dane Coles and Asafo Aumua, the Hurricanes have three international class hookers. Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Chris Eves, Ben May and Reggie Goodes (now retired) have all done a solid job at prop over recent years but there is a feeling that a world class prop option could elevate the Hurricanes tight five to another level. 



Blues
Super Rugby titles:
3 (1996, 1997, 2003)
Last season: Last in NZ Conference, fourteenth overall.
Coaching team: Tana Umaga (Head Coach), Leon MacDonald (Assistant Coach), Tom Coventry (Assistant Coach), Daniel Halangahu (Backs Coach)
Tale of the Tape: There’s no hiding the fact that the Blues have fell on hard times in recent seasons but 2019 offers new hope for the proud club. The Blues registered just four victories across a torrid 2018 season which was compounded by a horror injury count. It will be a new start in 2019 and there is plenty to like about the Blues chances. From the inclusion of former All Blacks fullback Leon McDonald on Tana Umaga’s coaching group to the return of two-time Rugby World Cup winner Ma’a Nonu to the midfield, there will be no shortage of belief among the side. When considering the flow-on effect from Auckland’s stunning Mitre 10 Cup campaign this year, the Blues could be set for a renaissance in 2019.
Key performers in 2018: While primarily seen as a left wing on the international stage, Rieko Ioane made a big impact in the midfield for the Blues in 2018. He effected the second most offloads of any New Zealand player in the competition with 25 offloads and crossed for 10 tries as well as featuring strongly in the metres ran, defenders beaten and clean breaks stats. In the pack, it is hard to look past his brother Akira who was the only Blues player to edge Rieko in many of the attacking stats. Most impressively, Akira beat 74 defenders in the entire competition, more than any other forward in Super Rugby.
Position of Interest: Blues fans will be keenly watching to see who takes the ten jersey in 2018. With Bryn Gatland heading off to the Highlanders, there are plenty of other contenders who could step into the lead pivot role should they be named in the Blues squad on October 31. Among them are Manawatu’s Otere Black, who missed the 2018 Super Rugby season through injury, classy Taranaki playmaker Stephen Perofeta and Auckland youngster Harry Plummer. The Blues have long been searching for a world class first five-eighth and in Black, Perofeta and Plummer they may just have three contenders in their midst. 



Chiefs
Super Rugby titles:
2 (2012, 2013)
Last season: Third in NZ conference. Losing quarterfinalist.
Coaching team: Colin Cooper (Head Coach), Tabai Matson (Assistant Coach)
Tale of the Tape: After losing a number of experienced players and suffering a horror injury toll early in the season, the Chiefs exceeded a lot of expectations in 2018 to finish the regular season in third place on points. Damian McKenzie provided the spark at first five-eighth while the tight five was one of the most dominant in the competition with players like Karl Tu’inukuafe and Angus Ta’avao earning All Blacks call-ups off the back of their Super Rugby form. The Chiefs will take huge confidence into their 2019 campaign and know if they can keep their top players fit and on the field they will be a genuine title threat.
Key performers in 2018: The drums were beating hard for a call up to the All Blacks for fullback Solomon Alaimalo such was his strong form for the Chiefs. The 22-year-old bagged an impressive eight tries in the season and was the Chiefs most dangerous attacking weapon with 68 defenders beaten and a competition-leading 43 clean breaks made. In the pack, Sam Cane was at his tireless best. Whether causing a mischief at ruck time or tackling up a storm, Cane was an unrelenting force in the seven jersey.
Position of Interest: With classy midfielder Charlie Ngatai shifting to France and the hard-running Johnny Fa’auli off to Japan, Chiefs fans will be curious to see who partners All Black Anton Lienert-Brown in the midfield. Young centre Quinn Tupaea has been hugely impressive for Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup and will surely be in the selectors’ calculations. Tupaea has been tipped for higher honours since starring for the Hamilton Boys High School First XV and a season alongside a seasoned All Black like Lienert-Brown could be just what Tupaea needs to take his game to the next level. 



Highlanders
Super Rugby titles:
1 (2015)
Last season: Fourth in NZ conference. Losing quarterfinalist.
Coaching team: Aaron Mauger (Head Coach), Mark Hammett (Assistant Coach), Glenn Delaney (Assistant Coach), Clarke Dermody (Scrum Coach)
Tale of the Tape: Always capable of tearing teams apart through clinical set piece offense or scintillating counter attack, the Highlanders have lacked the consistency over the past couple of seasons that was a hallmark of their 2015 title success. Given the quality of their squad in 2018, the Highlanders would have been disappointed to drop seven games throughout the season. Coach Aaron Mauger would have drawn a line in the sand and will be looking for his team to perform better on the road in 2019. If the Highlanders can improve their performances away from their Forsyth Barr Stadium fortress, they will be a chance of adding to their lone Super Rugby title when the competition gets underway in 2019.
Key performers in 2018: The Highlanders loose forward trio were strong throughout the season and no one was more consistent than hard-working openside flanker Dillon Hunt. The 23-year-old showed why he is on the radar of national selection by topping the Highlanders tackle count and getting through a ton of work at the breakdown. While not a flashy player, Hunt doesn’t shirk the tough work and provided the perfect complement to the explosive power of Liam Squire and Shannon Frizzel. In the backs, it was Waisake Naholo who topped most of the Highlanders attacking statistics. With 10 tries in the season, Naholo also overtook Jeff Wilson as the all-time leading try scorer in Highlanders history with 41 tries.
Position of Interest: With stalwart Lima Sopoaga no longer available, a lot of focus will be on who steps into the pivotal ten jersey. Former Blues first five-eighth Bryn Gatland must be a contender for the starting role while Josh Ioane has been strong for Otago in the Mitre 10 Cup. In a similar mould to Sopoga, Ioane is an astute tactician and dazzling playmaker. His selection in the Maori All Blacks for their end of year tour shows just how high he is regarded by national selectors. 



Crusaders
Super Rugby titles:
9 (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2017, 2018)
Last season: First in NZ conference. Super Rugby champion
Coaching team: Scott Robertson (Head Coach), Brad Mooar (Assistant Coach), Jason Ryan (Forwards Coach), Ronan O’Gara (Backs Coach), Andrew Goodman (Assistant Coach)
Tale of the Tape: By far and away the most dominant team in the history of Investec Super Rugby, the Crusaders will be looking to complete the second three-peat in their history following consecutive title wins in 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Crusaders had a tricky start to their 2018 season by suffering back-to-back losses to the Hurricanes and Highlanders before going on an unbeaten 15-match run all the way to the title. Opposition coaches will have spent the off-season working overtime trying to find a chink in their armour.
Key performers in 2018: From the starting fifteen through to the bench and the wider squad, every player in the Crusaders squad seemed to stand up when it counted. If we are to single out a couple of players though, it would be outside back George Bridge and lock Sam Whitelock. Unflappable 23-year-old Bridge crossed for 15 tries and averaged 79 minutes per-match to show just how vital he was to the Crusaders game plan. Sam Whitelock is the classical ‘lead from the front’ captain. Actions speak louder than words for Whitelock and he has galvanised a team around him that will never say die or give less than 100 percent.
Position of Interest: A feature of the Crusaders over much of their history has been the presence of a blockbusting wing. In the early 2000s it was Marika Vunibaka, then in recent times we have seen Nemani Nadolo and Seta Tamanivalu terrorise opposition defenders. With Tamanivalu shifting to France, Crusaders fans will be eager to see who is named in the outside backs when the Crusaders squad is named on October 31. 



Tune into your team's social media channels on 31 October and follow the hashtag #SuperSigningDay to keep up with all the news.