Dane Coles (Hurricanes)
Granted, it's been a while since deadly Dane put in a full Super Rugby shift. But hope springs eternal. And you have to think he's been a missing ingredient for the boys from the capital the last couple of seasons as they've ceded top spot to the Crusaders. Can he get back to that roving, ball-playing, X-factor best of his pomp? It's going to be a challenge, but even Coles at 80 per cent of what he was will be a big factor in a Canes pack expected to have its issues in 2019. World Cup repercussions too.
Ryan Crotty (Crusaders)
A top-20 spot for the ultimate 'Glue Guy'. Thoroughly deserved too. Crotty might not be the flashiest type, nor the swiftest; but he makes everybody around him better because he does all the little things that make a backline efficient. Midfield partnership with Jack Goodhue is quality, great understanding with Richie Mo'unga and a vital leader for the smooth-running Crusaders. In a tight midfield squeeze for the RWC, looks a must-have.
Waisake Naholo (Highlanders)
Still a world-class strikeforce on the wing and a big part of the Highlanders' game at its best. If the southerners are to contend again they have to get the ball in this bloke's hands as often as possible. The Landers back themselves to make tackles and play territory, then strike when opportunities arise. But they need Naholo running into holes whenever possible. One of many senior All Blacks in his farewell campaign, and needs a big one to remain in the RWC mix.
Big Pieter-Steph du Toit takes some stopping when he’s on the charge for the Stormers.Credit:EPA
Pieter-Steph du Toit (Stormers)
Position: Lock/loose forward
Big, bad and in the form of his life. South African rugby's player of the year for two of the last three years is the driving force for any hope the Stormers have of returning to finals footy. An absolute workhorse around the field, Du Toit stuffs the stats in areas such as tackles, carries and lineout takes. Seems to save his best for the green jersey of his country, but the rebuilding Stormers need him at full noise from minute one in 2019.
Kieran Read (Crusaders)
The All Blacks captain will be digging deep for his final year in New Zealand. Coming off that delicate back surgery at the end of 2017, he's managed ultra-carefully these days with a watchful eye on keeping petrol in the tank for the Test season. While not the influence he was for the Crusaders, still a class act and big-time performer when it really matters. Delayed entry and load management will limit impact early, but expect him to be firing round the back half of the Super season.
There is no finer sight in Super Rugby than Waratahs flyer Israel Folau in the clear.Credit:AP
Israel Folau (Waratahs)
Think what you like about his views on certain matters, this guy remains an absolute class act on the rugby field and a major part of whatever the Waratahs hope to achieve in this competition. There is no one better in the air than this gifted athlete and though he can drift in and out of games a little, when he's engaged and dialled in he is an absolute match-winner. Tahs need him at his best to go any better than a quarter-final exit.
Matt Todd (Crusaders)
Position: Openside breakaway
Absolutely vital to whatever the Crusaders do. Outstanding all-round No.7, brilliant linkman, defends stoutly, attacks breakdown and thrives in the structured, disciplined style of the back-to-back champs. With so many world-class players around him, Todd understands his role and the freedom he has to execute it. There's a reason he's been popping back and forth to Japan the last few years. They know too well what a valuable performer he is.
Duane Vermeulen (Bulls)
Position: Loose forward
As tough and rugged as they come. Vermeulen is the go-to go-forward guy for every team he plays for. He invariably gets that big body over the gain-line and commands huge respect from opposition. Back in South African rugby for the first time since 2015, he will be the chief influence in a big Bulls pack that will key off his formidable qualities, and needs to stay injury-free for them to sustain their challenge.
Codie Taylor (Crusaders)
The All Blacks No.2 is right on top of his game and looks well placed to deliver another world-class season for his franchise. Very good at his core roles, but has developed his fitness, work-rate and skillset to become a major factor all over the park. When the Crusaders have their hooker popping passes out wide and crashing over to finish sweeping, multi-phase plays they are tough to beat. And he says he is aiming to lift his standards even higher in 2019. Something to relish.
Inspirational skipper Michael Hooper is behind so much of what the Waratahs do well in Super Rugby. Credit:Jessica Reading
Michael Hooper (Waratahs)
Position: Openside breakaway
As good as it gets in the Aussie game. Tough, tenacious, resilient and highly skilled around the breakdown and running support lines. A constant for a Tahs side that would be lost without his leadership, stellar play and inspirational presence. Must just keep on keeping on if the Tahs are to stay top of what looks an improved Aussie conference this year. Expect him to do just that.
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