Rugby-New Zealand Super Rugby Conference
WELLINGTON, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Factbox on the teams in Super Rugby's New Zealand Conference:
AUCKLAND BLUES (Auckland)
Coach: Leon MacDonald (first year)
Captains: Blake Gibson, Patrick Tuipulotu
Last year's finish: 14th (W-4, L-12)
Best performance: Champions (1996, 1997, 2003)
World Cup watch: Number eight Akira Ioane, whose speed, size and ball handling could be a difference in Japan, was sent a message from the All Blacks selectors they had run out of patience with him last year when he could not make a 51-man squad for the end-of-season tour. The 23-year-old, however, is expected to be challenged by new forwards coach Tom Coventry to lift his game, which could rekindle his chances.
Forwards - Leni Apisai, Matt Moulds, James Parsons, Alex Hodgman, Ezekiel Lindenmuth, Sione Mafileo, Marcel Renata, Karl Tuinukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Josh Goodhue, Jacob Pierce, Scott Scrafton, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jed Brown, Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson, Hoskins Sotutu, Jimmy Tupou.
Backs - Sam Nock, Augustine Pulu, Jonathan Ruru, Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta, Harry Plummer, Levi Aumua, TJ Faiane, Ma'a Nonu, Tanielu Telea, Sonny Bill Williams, Caleb Clarke, Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, Rieko Ioane, Melani Nanai, Jordan Trainor.
WAIKATO CHIEFS (Hamilton)
Coach: Colin Cooper (second year)
Captains: Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane
Last year's finish: Fifth (W-11, L-5)
Best performance: Champions (2012, 2013)
World Cup watch: All Blacks' openside flanker Sam Cane's recovery from a broken neck will keep him on the sidelines until at least the midway point of Super Rugby. Cane has said rugby was the furtherest thing from his mind when he suffered the injury and the focus will be on whether there is any trepidation in how he approaches the game upon his return.
Forwards - Nathan Harris, Liam Polwart, Samisoni Taukeiaho, Kane Hames, Aidan Ross, Reuben O'Neill, Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli, Sosefo Kautai, Angus Ta'avao, Brodie Retallick, Tyler Ardron, Laghlan McWhannell, Michael Allardice, Fin Hoeata, Mitchell Brown, Taleni Seu, Sam Cane, Mitchell Karpik, Lachlan Boshier, Luke Jacobson, Pita Gus Sowakula.
Backs - Brad Weber, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Jonathan Taumateine, Damian McKenzie, Stephen Donald, Tiaan Falcon, Jack Debreczeni, Alex Nankivell, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tumua Manu, Bailyn Sullivan, Solomon Alaimalo, Sean Wainui, Ataata Moeakiola, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Shaun Stevenson, Marty McKenzie.
WELLINGTON HURRICANES (Wellington)
Coach: John Plumtree (first year)
Captain: Dane Coles
Last year: Fourth (W-11, L-5)
Best performance: Champions (2016)
World Cup watch: Space and how flyhalf Beauden Barrett exploits it will be crucial not only for the 2016 champions but also the All Blacks later in the year. Barrett has looked under pressure at Super Rugby and international level for the last two seasons as defences rush up and cut off his options, and how the two-times World Player of the Year unlocks defences could be crucial for the All Blacks' gameplan in Japan.
Forwards - Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli, Fraser Armstrong, Chris Eves, Alex Fidow, Ben May, Toby Smith, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, James Blackwell, Geoff Cridge, Sam Lousi, Liam Mitchell, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Gareth Evans, Vaea Fifita, Sam Henwood, DuPlessis Kirifi, Reed Prinsep, Ardie Savea.
Backs - Finlay Christie, Richard Judd, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Fletcher Smith, Vince Aso, Wes Goosen, Ngani Laumape, Billy Proctor, Matt Proctor, Jordie Barrett, Ben Lam, Jonah Lowe, Nehe Milner-Skudder, James Marshall, Salesi Rayasi.
CANTERBURY CRUSADERS (Christchurch)
Coach: Scott Robertson (third year)
Captain: Sam Whitelock
Last year: First (W-14, L-2)
Best performance: Champions (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2017, 2018)
World Cup watch: Utility back George Bridge could be a dark horse selection for the World Cup after a sensational debut against Japan last year with two tries. The pacy Bridge offers the versatility and skillset expected by the All Blacks in the back three, although he has been told he still needs to work on his kicking game from fullback.
Forwards - Ben Funnell, Andrew Makalio, Codie Taylor, Michael Alaalatoa, Harry Allan, Owen Franks, Oliver Jager, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Scott Barrett, Mitchell Dunshea, Luke Romano, Quinten Strange, Sam Whitelock, Ethan Blackadder, Billy Harmon, Tom Sanders, Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Kieran Read.
Backs - Mitchell Drummond, Ereatara Enari, Bryn Hall, Brett Cameron, Richie Mo'unga, Mitchell Hunt, Tim Bateman, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Leicester Fainga'anuku, Braydon Ennor, Manasa Mataele, Ngane Punivai, George Bridge, Israel Dagg, David Havili, Will Jordan.
OTAGO HIGHLANDERS (Dunedin)
Coach: Aaron Mauger (second year)
Captains: Ben Smith, Luke Whitelock
Last year: Sixth (W-10, L-6)
Best performance: Champions (2015)
World Cup watch: The team have no shortage at blindside flanker with Liam Squire and Shannon Frizell both appearing in the All Blacks number six jersey last year. Lock Jackson Hemopo is also seen as a potential World Cup blindside flanker by the national selectors and Mauger has the uneviable task of trying to give all three playing time in the position to push their World Cup chances.
Forwards - Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Ray Niuia, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Siate Tokolahi, Tyrel Lomax, Sef Fa'agase, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Paripari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Jack Whetton, Luke Whitelock, Liam Squire, James Lentjes, Dillon Hunt, Marino Mikaele Tu'u, Shannon Frizell, Elliot Dixon.
Backs - Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Folau Fakatava, Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane, Marty Banks, Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Waisake Naholo, Tevita Li, Tevita Nabura, Josh McKay, Ben Smith.
(Compiled by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford)