The 2019 Super Rugby New Zealand Conference is expected to be a hotly contested one this season, with supporters expecting test match intensity level in every game.
Here are our predictions for each team.
Predicted Conference Finish: 4th
Crusaders (H), Sharks (A), Jaguares (A), Sunwolves (H), Bye, Highlanders (H), Stormers, (H), Waratahs (H), Chiefs (A), Highlanders (A), Bye, Brumbies (A), Hurricanes (H), Chiefs (H), Crusaders (A), Bulls (H), Reds (A), Hurricanes (A).
Player to Watch: Ma'a Nonu
The veteran All Black returns to New Zealand this season as he feels that he has unfinished business in Super Rugby. The centre has also admitted that he would like to play for his country again and seeing that it’s a World Cup year we expecting big things from him.
Youngster To Watch: Dalton Papali'i
Now an All Black, Papali'i is still a rising star in Auckland and big Super Rugby season could seal him a place on the plane to Japan later this year. The looseforward is comfortable on either side of the scrum, is a strong ball carrier and gets over the ball well. In the backs Otere Black will look to get his first season with the Blues underway after suffering an injury that ruled him out of the 2018 season while Harry Plumber is another potential star.
Predicted Conference Finish: 5th
First 5 Fixtures:
Highlanders (H), Brumbies (A), Sunwolves (H), Crusaders (A), Hurricanes (H), Bulls (A), Jaguares (A), Bye, Blues (H), Lions (H), Hurricanes (A), Highlanders (A), Sharks (H), Blues (A), Reds (H), Crusaders (H), Bye, Rebels (A).
Player to Watch: Damian McKenzie
The 23-year-old, who is a bit of a utility backline player, is expected to be the Chiefs main No. 10 this season and big things will be expected from him when he plays. The pocket rocket is able to turn something out of nothing and the Chiefs will need him at his best at all times should they want to succeed this year.
Youngster To Watch: Ataata Moeakiola
Moeakiola was an internet sensation when he scored a hattrick for the Japanese u20s against South Africa. The powerful Japanese winger will look to make his mark in New Zealand this year having completed his degree. Up front Atu Moli returns after an extended injury break after being on the cusp of a test debut.
Predicted Conference Finish: 1st
First 5 Fixtures:
Blues (A), Hurricanes (H), Reds (A), Chiefs (H), Highlanders (A), Waratahs (A), Hurricanes (A), Brumbies (H), Highlanders (H), Bye, Sharks (H) Lions (H), Bulls (A), Stormers (A), Blues (H), Chiefs, (A), Rebels (H), Bye.
Player to Watch: Richie Mo'unga
The playmaker had a fantastic breakthrough season last year and he will certainly be playing with more pressure on his shoulders this time around. The No. 10 will be vying for an All Black jersey this year and his performances in this competition will carry plenty of weight in any selection.
Youngster To Watch: Will Jordon
Jordan was robbed of a debut Super Rugby season last year because of injury but will look to make the most of his opportunities in 2019. Dubbed as the next Ben Smith, Jordan has all the attributes to be a world class test player. Only time will tell.
Predicted Conference Finish: 3rd
First Fixtures 5:
Chiefs (A), Reds (H), Rebels (A), Hurricanes (A), Crusaders (H), Blues (A), Bye, Hurricanes (H), Crusaders (A), Blues (H), Sunwolves (A), Chiefs (H), Jaguares (H), Lions (A), Stormers (A), Bye, Bulls (H), Waratahs (H).
Player To Watch: Ben Smith
The full-back is the co-captain of the Highlanders this year and will be called upon to provide some consistency and direction to the team, who are not expected to win the conference but will certainly cause a few upsets.
Youngster To Watch: Thomas Umaga-Jensen
Nephew of Blues coach and former All Black centre Tana Umaga, Thomas Umaga-Jensen made his Super Rugby last season but was another standout performer in a congested Wellington midfield during the Mitre 10 Cup last year. Outside back Josh McKay is another back to keep an eye out for while second rower Pari Pari Parkinson can certainly throw his weight around this season.
Predicted Conference Finish: 2nd
First Five Fixtures:
Waratahs (A), Crusaders (A), Brumbies (H), Highlanders (H), Chiefs (A), Stormers (H), Crusaders (H), Highlanders (A), Bye, Sunwolves (A), Chiefs (H), Rebels (H), Blues (A), Jaguares (H), Bye, Sharks (A), Lions (A), Blues (H).
Player to Watch: Ardie Savea
The flanker is expected to play a big role for his club side and the All Blacks this year and it’s worth mentioning that he turned down a few lucrative deals from Europe teams.
Youngster To Watch: Billy Proctor
To be the first player to ever be handed a 5-year contract at the Hurricanes, Billy Proctor is destined to be something special and will look to fight his way into a congested Hurricanes midfield with his brother Matt currently holding the 13 jersey. Proctor plays much like his brother Matt, he is gifted with the ball in hand and has a technical eye on defence and attack. Up front, Xavier Numia is a tough costumer at loosehead prop having made his u20s debut last year.