Opinion: Breaking down New Zealand's Super Rugby teams

New Zealand's Super Rugby teams will open their seasons this weekend, in what should be another tightly contested tussle between the five franchises.

For some sides, not much has changed, but for others, 2018 could be the beginning of a new era.

Here is one burning question from each team as the start of the season approaches.

Can the Blues avoid a last-place NZ conference finish?

Last season was the Blues' best season since 2011, finishing ninth with seven wins, seven losses and a draw.

They would have finished higher, if not for the stupid Super Rugby conference system, but that is a debate for another day.

Many Blues losses last season were by narrow margins - in fact, five of the seven losses were by 10 points or less, and in a couple of those matches, they lead at some point of the contest.

With four touch matches to start the season, it's critical that the Auckland-based franchise hits the ground running. If they do that, they could be a team to be reckoned with. 

They have incredible outside-back depth, but the question remains how will they fare with Bryn Gatland running the show from 10 and Otere Black out for the season.

They won the Brisbane Tens and were impressive when their strongest side was out on the park in their final pre-season match against the Hurricanes.

But it's always tough to read too much into preseason fixtures.

Without question, they have the talent and the squad to cause some upsets, but it's hard to see them finish above any of the other New Zealand teams.

If they can start strong, maybe things will pan out differently for the Blues, but only time will tell.

Can Damian McKenzie lead the Chiefs around the park?

Much of the Chiefs' hopes this season rests on the narrow shoulders of fullback-come-first-five Damian McKenzie.

The 22-year-old starred for the Hamilton-based franchise last year and was arguably Super Rugby's most valuable player.

Opinion: Breaking down New Zealand's Super Rugby teams
Photo credit: Getty

Having been a regular at the back for Chiefs, and seeing his name appear more and more on the All Blacks team-sheet, it came as somewhat of a surprise when McKenzie announced his intention of forgoing his usual position of fullback.

He led the entire competition in run metres, line-breaks and tackle-breaks last year, and whether or not that same kind of stat-line will translate to first-five remains to be seen.

Following the departure of first-five Aaron Cruden to France and All Blacks pivot Lima Sopoaga's pending move overseas, McKenzie has every opportunity to cement his place behind Beauden Barrett in New Zealand's Test side.

He will be helped by an experienced supporting cast around him with halves partner Brad Weber, and midfield duo of Charlie Ngatai and Anton Lienert-Brown all having donned the black jersey.

Not to mention the electric backs outside of him in the form of Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo, Toni Pulu and veteran Tim Nanai-Williams.

Will the Hurricanes right the wrongs of 2017?

Head coach Chris Boyd will take charge for the final time before heading to Northampton.
Head coach Chris Boyd will take charge for the final time before heading to Northampton. Photo credit: Getty

This is a massive season for the Hurricanes, with plenty of interesting aspects coming together this year.

Two big ones stand out:

1) They will still be livid at themselves for blowing a 22-3 lead against the Lions in last year's semi-finals

2) They will want to send departing coach Chris Boyd out with a title.

They finished second in the New Zealand conference in 2017 with 12 wins and scored 97 tries - 29 of them came from centres Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso.

The Hurricanes were also the only team to trump the Crusaders, albeit in the final round of the season, after the June international window.

One thing playing to their advantage is the road trip right out of the blocks to face the Bull and Jaguares.

After that, they play most of their games in New Zealand - eight of their last nine are on our shores.

On top of that, they haven't lost any really key players, but they have added some good ones.

With some top players out at the start of the season, the Hurricanes might be a little shaky, but don't be surprised if we see a very similar side to last year and one that will defiantly challenge the Crusaders once more.

Can the Crusaders defend their title?

The Crusaders looked unbeatable in 2017 - well, they did lose the final one of the regular season, so they can be excused for that.

Not much has changed for the eight-time champions. They have managed to keep the same core of talent, and have also added some really talented prospects in Will Jordan and Ethan Blackadder.

Even though they too will miss some All Blacks at the start of the season through injury, their depth is incredible.

No Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg, but it doesn't faze the Christchurch-based franchise, as they have had players step up to the plate in the past.

This seems to be normal for the Crusaders, whose younger players never fail to deliver.

Richie Mo'unga is expected to continue with his excellent form and challenge for the back-up All Blacks first-five role, with Lima Sopoaga departing.

It's really hard to find a real flaw in the Crusaders, Scott Robinson has them operating like a well-oiled freight train.

Their depth will be key in 2018, they have shown that they can cope without their stars, they defiantly deserve to be title favourites and they might go one better in 2018 - and undefeated season.

Opinion: Breaking down New Zealand's Super Rugby teams
Photo credit: Getty

Can new head coach Aaron Mauger inspire a Highlanders turnaround?

Now, it may seem harsh to suggest the Highlanders are in need of a turnaround, after making the past four Super Rugby playoffs and winning in 2015.

But last season, they found themselves fourth in the New Zealand conference, only ahead of the Blues.

Despite making the playoffs, they were promptly swept aside by the eventual champions - the Crusaders - in the quarter-finals.

Then-head coach Tony Brown has since left the franchise, taking up a position as assistant to Jamie Joseph for the Japan national team.

In comes former All Black second-five, Aaron Mauger.

The 37-year-old was a unanimous hiring by the board, leaving little doubt as to who they wanted to take the team forward.

Mauger previously served as caretaker coach for the Leicester Tigers in the Aviva Premiership, where he won seven from 12 games.

Now back in his homeland, he's tasked with taking the Highlanders back to Super Rugby glory in a scarily good New Zealand conference.

Against the Crusaders and the Hurricanes boasting All Blacks galore, the consistent Chiefs and an on-the-up Blues side, Mauger and the Highlanders face an uphill battle.