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Hurricanes head Kiwi Super Rugby charge

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 21/02/2017 Daniel Gilhooly

The Hurricanes reckon the battle for Super Rugby honours will be just as fierce as last year when they emerged with glory for the first time.

A competition dominated by New Zealand teams ended with the Dane Coles-led Hurricanes seeing off South Africa's Lions in the final, ending 21 years of waiting for their supporters.

The Lions and four Kiwi outfits all finished the regular season with the same 11-win four-loss record, but the Hurricanes had snared an additional bonus point to claim all-important home advantage in the play-offs.

All Blacks hooker Coles expects the New Zealand derby games to be as intense as ever and reckons his little-changed side are ready for whatever's thrown at them.

In fact, he believes they're better placed than a year ago, recalling their 52-10 opening-round trouncing from the Brumbies.

"It's probably the fittest I've seen the team coming back but that doesn't mean anything - we were fat and slow last year and still managed to do something," he said.

"We know we've got a big target on our backs now because we've won it. Teams will definitely come out and and be the best they can be, and try to tip us up."

With All Blacks halves Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara conducting proceedings and electric three-quarter Nehe Milner-Skudder back from injury, the Hurricanes boast a backline poised to capitalise if their pack can show the same exuberance of 2016.

South Island rivals the Crusaders and Highlanders both bid farewell to their coaches in post-season losses to the Lions in Johannesburg.

Scott Robertson replaces the long-serving Todd Blackadder at the Crusaders, hoping to end a trend of play-off eliminations which have plagued them since the last of seven titles in 2008.

The usual swag of All Blacks are in their pack, including new skipper Sam Whitelock, while former Chiefs powerhouse Seta Tamanivalue is an intriguing recruit further out.

Tony Brown succeeds Jamie Joseph at the Highlanders and also has a settled squad to call on.

Getting Aaron Smith back to his best will be vital, with the sparkplug All Blacks halfback's Test form having nosedived after news broke of his infamous airport tryst last September.

Season-ending controversy also dogged the Chiefs, who are still shaking off the negativity surrounding the "stripper-gate" saga.

Two-time championship winning coach Dave Rennie says his team's focus is all on-field as he prepares for his last campaign before leaving for Glasgow. Following him out the door will be France-bound Test first five-eighth Aaron Cruden.

The improving Blues were the only Kiwi outfit to miss the 2016 post-season, despite losing just six of 15 games under Tana Umaga.

Recruiting Sonny Bill Williams, who should be back from injury in late March, can only be a positive while rising brothers Akira and Rieko Ioane are set to make further strides in 2017.

Selection for the All Blacks side to face the British and Irish Lions will be an escalating narrative as the season rolls on.

All five sides will get a crack at the tourists in June and July, having already voiced their desire to claim a famous scalp.

The early part of the season could be dominated by the crackdown on head high tackles, with players potentially facing yellow and red cards if they can't adapt to the tighter restrictions imposed by safety-conscious lawmakers.

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