World Cup title defence the undercurrent to NZ Super Rugby season
By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON, Feb 13 (Reuters) - The All Blacks' Rugby World Cup defence will be a strong undercurrent for Super Rugby teams in New Zealand this season with several places in Steve Hansen's squad still up for grabs.
Unlike four years ago when the World Cup side was virtually settled before Super Rugby kicked off, players such as loose forwards Dalton Papalii and Akira Ioane, hooker Asafo Aumua, utility back George Bridge and lock Jackson Hemopo could all force themselves into the final 31-man squad for Japan.
In terms of Super Rugby storylines, while the Canterbury Crusaders are bidding for a third successive title the most intriguing aspect of the new season, for the first few weeks at least, will be the Auckland Blues.
The side have struggled in recent years and underwent a coaching shake-up with Leon MacDonald promoted to succeed Tana Umaga despite the former All Blacks captain being handed a contract extension earlier last year.
Umaga has said he was happy to be an assistant to his former All Blacks team mate, who also has former Waikato Chiefs assistant coach Tom Coventry to oversee the forwards and instil the kind of hard-nosed physicality that has been missing in recent years.
The Blues have also recruited two-times World Cup winner Ma'a Nonu to link up with Sonny Bill Williams in the midfield, and drafted in several players from the Auckland side that won New Zealand's provincial championship last year.
The spotlight, however, will again fall on whether Stephen Perofeta or Otere Black can drive the side around from flyhalf, a position the Blues have struggled to fill since Carlos Spencer left in 2005.
Spencer will return to Eden Park on May 10 with the Wellington Hurricanes, where the enigmatic flyhalf is an assistant to new coach John Plumtree, who has taken over from Chris Boyd.
The Hurricanes also lost forwards Brad Shields and Michael Fatialofa to overseas contracts and while still having the competition's most explosive backline could again struggle against bigger packs, like that of the Crusaders.
The Christchurch-based side's pack, which boasts nine current All Blacks, ensures they are again the strong favourites for the title and Scott Robertson could become the first coach to guide a side to three-successive championships.
Victory would also likely improve Robertson's chances of replacing Hansen, who has said he would step down following the World Cup in Japan.
Former All Blacks loose forward Robertson told reporters last year that he was interested in the second-most scrutinised job in New Zealand after the prime minister, but added that a stint overseas might not hurt his career.
The probably mid-season return of All Blacks flanker Sam Cane from a broken neck should boost a Chiefs side that has shaken off several long-term injuries and has arguably the world's best player -- Brodie Retallick -- leading this year but Damian McKenzie still needs to convince at flyhalf.
Aaron Mauger's Otago Highlanders should again be in the running for the playoffs, with a hard-working and deep pack hoping to farewell stalwart Ben Smith to French club Pau after the World Cup with his second title.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)