Coach: Dave Rennie
Co-captains: Liam Messam, Aaron Cruden
Stadium: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Best finish: Champions (2012, 2013)
The defending champions, looking to become only the second side behind the Crusaders of 1998-2000 to win three championships in a row, have bolstered their ranks with two astute signings. All Blacks centurion Mils Muliaina, who returns from Japan, and ex-Crusader Robbie Fruean will add an imposing presence to an already-talented backline directed by All Blacks halves Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden. A Super rugby winner's medal is the one jewel missing from Muliaina's trophy cabinet. The Chiefs' attacking prowess is without question, scoring 50 tries last year, more than any other side. The have also built a fortress reputation in Hamilton, where they have lost only three of their last 20 home games. Hard-driving loose forward Liam Messam will again lead the side, with Cruden replacing the now-departed Craig Clarke as the co-skipper. With Dan Carter on sabbatical from the Crusaders this year, it is
Cruden's chance to make his mark as New Zealand's premier backline general.
Coach: Todd Blackadder
Captain: Kieran Read
Stadium: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Best finish: Champions (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008)
They may dine off their reputation as the most successful team in Super rugby, but the reality is the cupboard has been bare since 2008. Part of the rescue remedy has been to tackle the problem of being slow starters by ditching the usual pre-season bonding camps to focus on pure rugby preparation and hit the ground running. Their All Blacks, notably IRB player of the year Kieran Read and Richie McCaw, will also be with the side from the early rounds, although they will miss the opening clash against the Chiefs. With champion fly-half Dan Carter on extended leave, Colin Slade returns in the pivot role while Fijian flyer Nemani Nadolo joins from the NEC Green Rockets in Japan as
the new finisher, with Zac Guildford off to France. The Crusaders count five All Blacks among their loose forwards and three among their locks, giving them
both power and depth up front.
Coach: John Kirwan
Captain: Luke Braid
Stadium: Eden Park, Auckland
Best finish: Champions (1996, 1997, 2003)
The focus may be on code-switcher Benji Marshall, but how the former rugby league star slots in at fly-half is of secondary importance to coping with depleted lock stocks. Discarded All Black Tom Donnelly and journeyman middle-rower Hayden Triggs will steel the pack, with no experienced players to fall back on should either be injured. After their shift south to the Highlanders last year, Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu return to the Blues and Jerome Kaino comes back from Japan. If they can win ball, and the Marshall gamble pays off, the Blues have fledgling All Blacks Francis Saili, Frank Halai and Charles Piutau to fire up a side looking to recreate its golden era from the early years of Super rugby. Luke Braid takes over as captain.
Coach: Mark Hammett
Captain: Conrad Smith
Stadium: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Best finish: Runners-up (2006)
Three years after coach Mark Hammett cleared the decks and sought to rebuild an underperforming side, the Hurricanes continue to underperform. They reached as high as fifth on the ladder last year before slumping to 11th. Again they have the promise to do better, with Cory Jane back to link with Julian Savea and Conrad Smith out wide, and with TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett calling the shots in the halves. Much is expected of impressive apprentice All Black Ardie Savea, younger brother of Julian, working with Victor Vito in the
loose. If the Hurricanes are to finally show their promise they need to be able to take some confidence from how they fare at the start of the season, when they travel to face the Sharks and Stormers in South Africa and return home to play the Brumbies. No big signings but they have lost productive forwards Ben May, Jason Eaton and Karl Lowe.
Coach: Jamie Joseph
Captain: Ben Smith, Nasi Manu
Stadium: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Best finish: Runners-up (1999)
The immediate future does not look great for New Zealand's worst-performing side as coach Jamie Joseph heads back to the drawing board after building a promising unit in his first two years. Last year he padded the Highlanders with All Blacks and much of the previous good work was undone as they finished second to last overall. Eight past or present All Blacks departed in the off-season, leaving Ben and Aaron Smith in the backs with Brad Thorn and Jarrad
Hoeata in the forwards to work with a squad of no-names. It is difficult to see Ben Smith, who was in sensational try-scoring form last year, having much
possession to display his prodigious talents. But the way some of the name players performed last year, it does not necessarily mean the novice Highlanders of 2014 will be worse than the talent-laden 2013 model which finished 14th.