After the feast of rugby we had in 2017 it feels like an age since the Crusaders lifted the Super Rugby trophy. Thankfully though that changes this weekend as the 2018 Super Rugby season kicks off in earnest.
After some enthralling performances during the domestic competitions, some interesting moves in the off season, and standing out during the end-of-year tours, we have earmarked our 5 young players to keep an eye out for in this year's edition of the competition. Here they are:
Asafo Aumua - Hurricanes
This is probably the most obvious of our picks, but that doesn't make it wrong. Aumua had a dream season last year that culminated with him being offered a spot on New Zealand's end-of-year tour to Europe.
He is currently on a mandatory two-week layoff and he is said to be nursing a minor rib injury amid concerns about his general lack of conditioning leading into the new campaign, Aumua is sure to come out firing when he is released and he will be ready to fight for his spot and make a big impact this season.
Alex Fidow - Hurricanes
Aumua's partner in crime in the front row, Fidow fought it out with backline players to be the top try scorer at the end of the Mitre 10 cup season in new Zealand. He is almost laughably mobile for a tighthead prop and Fidow is expected to take full advantage of Jeffery Toomaga-Allen's mandatory two-week break and stake a claim for the No. 3 jersey at the Hurricanes to start out the year.
Damian Willemse - Stormers
Robert du Preez's departure has opened the door for this immensely talented Capetonian. He had a mesmeric Currie Cup season which saw him play at fullback for the majority of the time, but we expect him to thrive in his preferred position at 10. The Stormers are a dark horse pick to make some noise in the playoffs this season and if they are to do so, then it will be on the form of Willemse driving the team forward.
Rieko Ioane - Blues
Yes, it is a bit unorthodox to have arguably the world's inform player - and a bona fide superstar to boot on this list - but the main point of interest here is to see how if Ioane can kick on and avoid the dreaded second-season syndrome.
We are keen to see how he has adapted his game and what skills he will have added to maintain his position on the top of the pile. While Ioane is going to still be full of breathtaking pace, defenders will now know what is coming at them. Can the Blues winger adapt and lead his squad to the promised land of the playoffs?
Damian McKenzie - Chiefs
Yes, here we have another established international and known gamebreaker, but there is some method to the madness here.
McKenzie is an out of this world fullback, but this season for the Chiefs he looks set to play the role of fly-half, and he is now involved in a whole new dogfight to maintain his spot in the All Blacks side.
He showed what he could do at 15 and while he still may play there at times, he is also vying for the backup spot to Beauden Barrett vacated by Aaron Cruden.. This has us watching him keenly to see how well he does in Super Rugby and if he has the potential to take up that mantle and give New Zealand even more attacking threat from first five-eighth.
What do you think of our picks? Let us know in the comments section below!