New Zealand Super Rugby squads need to be finalised by the end of this month.
Only one of the five franchises have finalised their squads so far - that squad being the Wellington-based Hurricanes.
With the upcoming New Zealand Super Rugby draft looming, a draft where New Zealand sides take turns at selecting players who are not contracted to a Super Rugby team next season from the national, semi-professional competition, the ITM Cup, to fill in remaining allocation spots within the 32-man squad that are yet to be filled.
The national competition has been a mega success for Super Rugby coaches looking to sign fresh, young talent from all over the country, with previous relative unknown talents like Matt Symons (Canterbury), Liam Squire and speedster James Lowe (both Tasman) picked up by the back-to-back reigning champions the Chiefs, youngster Mitchell Drummond (Tasman) signed by the Crusaders, Shane Christie (Tasman) and local boys Gareth Evans and Tom Franklin (both Otago) contracted to the Highlanders, while Marty Banks (Tasman), who was possibly the breakthrough player of the ITM Cup, in both the Championship and Premiership, and solid second-five Cardiff Vaega (Southland) both signed for the Hurricanes.
Some teams, however, preferred to target more established names, players who had proven themselves at higher levels who were without a Super Rugby contract for next season.
Teams like these included the Blues, who welcomed the return of 105-test All Black Tony Woodcock, 85-test All Black Ma'a Nonu to Auckland, both of whom quit the Blues in 2012 to play for the Highlanders in 2013, while also adding Auckland/Blues legend 49-test All Black Jerome Kaino - who played offshore in Japan over the past two seasons - to their ranks, along with rugby league superstar Benji Marshall (secured from the Wests Tigers in the NRL), and seasoned 15-test veteran Tom Donnelly, who will be playing for his third franchise, following stints with the Highlanders and Crusaders.
Other teams to sign established players include the Chiefs, having lured in one-test All Black Jamie Mackintosh from the Highlanders, and former All Black centurion Mils Muliana, who, like Kaino, returns from a two season-stint in Japan, as well as former Crusaders Tom Marshall and Robbie Fruean.
But there are still plenty of talented players, both from New Zealand and on the international stage, who are yet to sign a Super Rugby contract for next season.
Here is a look at 12 players who the four remaining New Zealand Super Rugby franchises should contemplate signing before the draft starts.
1. Ihaia West (Hawkes Bay)
The former New Zealand Under-20 representative would be the only player in this season's ITM Cup to challenge Tasman's Marty Banks for revelation of the year.
The 20-year-old redhead is still surprisingly unsigned for next season by any Super Rugby squad in New Zealand. His scintillating runs, slick ball skills and skilled kicking earned him a spot as the only fly-half on the Maori All Blacks squad for their tour of Canada and the USA next month.
Skilled enough to play at the next level, and if not picked up before or during the draft, expect to see him feature at some point in the All Blacks Sevens squad.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Blues (only contracted first-five is Baden Kerr), and Chiefs (would serve as a good back-up to only contracted first-five Aaron Cruden).
2. Willis Halaholo (Southland)
Halaholo formed a formidable midfield partnership with second-five Cardiff Vaega, both punching holes through the defensive lines of most teams in the ITM Cup this season.
Unlike his Samoan midfield partner, Halaholo is yet to find himself a contract in Super Rugby this season, which comes as a surprise, considering the Tongan centre has set up numerous tries, broken past the advantage line countless times and put in a number of crunching tackles.
Would be a good asset to any team at Super Rugby level.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Blues (would serve as a solid back-up to current All Black midfielders Ma'a Nonu and Francis Saili), and Crusaders (would form a solid, development midfield partnership with the only contracted midfielder Ray Lee-Lo).
3. Carlin Isles (USA Sevens)
This would be a long shot, but one of the most famous sevens players in the world right now, known as the 'Olympic Dream', has not found himself a professional 15-man code contract yet.
The 15-man version might not suit the former Olympic sprinting prospect, with far more space in sevens allowing him to use his lightning bolt pace to out-sprint defenders.
But, especially in broken play and on the counter attack, Isles could be lethal, with not just his pace, but his power, especially for a smaller guy. He showed during his time as a running back in college that he could possibly become a key player to watch out for come Rugby World Cup 2015 for the USA on the wing, especially when paired up with fellow speedster, Biarritz wing Takudzwa Ngwenya.
Defence, ball skills and kicking (if a move to fullback was on the cards) may need some work to cope in the main version of rugby, but coming to New Zealand would be the best place to fix those problems.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Blues (would serve as a good, developing back-up to the only other contracted wing, New Zealand sevens rep Waisake Naholo, and probably Charles Piutau, who will move from fullback to wing in place of Benji Marshall), Crusaders (would serve as a good development player under the guidance of the only other contracted wing, former All Black Zac Guildford) and Highlanders (good back-up to the only contracted wing Patrick Osbourne, and probably Kurt Baker, who will be forced to play at wing rather than fullback due to in-form All Black Ben Smith).
4. Shontayne Hape (Montpellier)
The former New Zealand rugby league representative, Hape has been released by his French club for the current season, meaning that at this point in time, Hape is a free agent.
The 13-test England player enjoyed good form for England during his international career, making the 2011 Rugby World Cup, scoring two tries at the tournament, both of which were against Georgia and were the only of his international career to date.
However, a lack of form has seen him dropped from the national side, and he has not been selected for the side since the tournament. A move to French club Montpellier in April last year was an attempt to get himself back into the squad, but that has failed, with his form not considered up to scratch, which is why Hape is now a free agent.
A move to New Zealand could be what he needs, however, as testing himself against tougher opposition could propel the 32-year-old back into the English set-up. New Zealand would also be an attractive option for Hape, due to the the fact that he played professional rugby league in his homeland with the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL, before going on to play for the Kiwis.
Also, unlike some nations, Hape would still be eligible for English selection if he came down south, which would help the midfielder's decision.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Blues (could push for a starting role ahead of most likely Francis Saili to form a partnership with veteran All Black Ma'a Nonu), Chiefs (could have a starting role with the blockbusting Robbie Fruean ahead of players like Charlie Ngatai, Andrew Horrell and Mils Muliana) and Crusaders (would be guaranteed a starting role as a tutor for the younger, less experienced Ray Lee-Lo).
5. Lolagi Visinia (Auckland)
A superstar at high school, the 20-year-old fullback has already played at Super Rugby level, having been called up from the Blues' wider training squad that he was part of last season. He faced the Stormers at North Harbour Stadium earlier this year, as well as a call up for the Blues to face France earlier in the year.
Visinia was apart of the 2011 New Zealand Schools team that was jam-packed with future superstars, with every member of that side now playing first-class rugby union or rugby league.
That includes the likes of NRL grand final-winning Rooster Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who is now with the Kiwi's World Cup squad, Warriors wing Ngani Luamape, who is now with the Tongan World Cup side, and Highlanders and Manawatu centre Jason Emery.
For Visina to be included in a team of that quality indicates how talented this youngster is. His talent was showcased in this year's ITM Cup, where he broke the line many times, and both scored and set-up numerous tries. One to watch for the future.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Crusaders (would be a solid development fullback for the Christchurch-based franchise, and would often earn slection on the bench, earning more game time than what he had with the Blues, and would go under the wing of All Black tutor Israel Dagg).
6. Tevita Li (North Harbour)
Still at high school - the winger has already played for the North Harbour ITM Cup team, the Blues' Super Rugby team and the New Zealand Sevens team. That sentence alone should be enough to convince anyone that the 19-year-old would be a valuable asset to their team.
A part of the 2012 New Zealand Schools team, Li missed a history assignment while playing for the All Black Sevens team in London, and made his Blues debut against France the night before a maths exam, and it is easy to see why he played for those two teams.
His pace and power is frightening for any defender that has the difficult task of marking the teenager, and this was showcased in an ITM Cup game this year against Wellington, where he scored one of the best tries of the year, ducking, weaving and blasting his way through six defenders to score a memorable try.
A certain future All Black.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: See Carlin Isles.
7. Sherwin Stowers (Counties Manukau)
It is especially surprising that someone of Sherwin Stowers' caliber is yet to be signed by a Super Rugby franchise.
A solid veteran at ITM Cup level, a promising prospect at Super Rugby level and a Commonwealth Games gold-medalist in the Sevens arena, Stowers has both plenty of experience and quality to be a good Super Rugby player.
Arguably the best player at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, Stowers has been part of the Counties Manukau set-up for a while now, and has gone on to prove himself as one of the leaders of the squad with his consistent selection and performances.
This did earn him a Super Rugby contract with the Blues in 2011 and 2012, but was not re-signed for the most recent Super Rugby campaign. The 27-year-old would be a worthwhile signing for any of the four franchises who need him most.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Blues (if he chooses the Blues, who may seem untrustworthy to Stowers, he would be a probable starter, ahead of Waisake Naholo and along with Charles Piutau on the wing), Crusaders (would be a good replacement for the Melbourne Rebels-bound Telusa Veainu, as Stowers plays very similarly to Veainu, but is more 'electric', but would be a benchwarmer behind wingers Zac Guildford and Israel Dagg, with Dagg playing on the wing to make room for Colin Slade, who will make room for first-five Tom Taylor), and the Highlanders (sure to be a would have to battle to start ahead of Kurt baker and Patrick Osbourne, but competition for Stowers would be good for his development).
8. Buxton Popoali'i (Otago)
Although he played for the Dunedin-based Highlanders in both 2012 and 2013, Popoali'i is yet to be re-signed by the southern-most franchise in New Zealand, or any team in New Zealand for that matter.
Popoali'i burst onto the scene with impressive performances for the New Zealand Sevens team in Wellington in 2011, and has never looked back. His performances for Otago over the past three seasons have been invaluable, and have earned him two seasons with the Highlanders.
But, incredibly, the Highlanders are reluctant to re-sign him, which is a shame, as the hot-stepping wing/fullback is a good member for any squad with his electric pace, and twinkle-toe-like step.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Blues (would probably start ahead of Waisake Naholo to pair up with All Black Charles Piuatu), Crusaders (would be a bench-warmer for the Crusaders, behind All Blacks Zac Guildford and Israel Dagg), and Highlanders (has already played for the Highlanders and has played well, which would mean his loyalty, quality and experience should see him start ahead of Kurt Baker or Patrick Osbourne).
9. Scott Eade (Southland)
Another superstar at high school, Scott Eade has played well for the Invercargill-based Southland Stags over the past three seasons, with this season being his breakthrough year.
Capable at playing at either halfback or first-five, Eade is a very accurate goal-kicker with slick ball skills and a good eye for gaps in the defence, of which he has the ability to exploit and either set-up or score off. Epitomising the term 'local lad', Eade would make his region proud if he was to make the next step up, a step he is very capable of making.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Blues (could push for a starting spot at the Auckland-based franchise as a first-five, with only Countie Manukau first-five Baden Kerr his competition), Chiefs (would serve as a useful back-up to first-five Aaron Cruden at the Hamilton-based champion franchise), and Highlanders (would be a popular selection within the Highlanders region as a good local boy, and would serve a a good back-up to the only contracted halfback for next season, Japanese international Fumiaki Tanaka).
10. Mahe Fonua (Melbourne Storm)
Currently a solid NRL wing with the Melbourne Storm, Tongan international Mahe Fonua would make a great Super Rugby wing/centre, coming off contract with the Storm at the end of the season.
Known for his immense power and skill, Fonua burst into the spotlight this season, powering his way to score numerous tries, and thanks to his infamous rats-tail haircut, he has become a cult figure in Melbourne.
His skill was displayed in a play earlier in the year against the Canberra Raiders, where Fonua leaped five meters past the dead ball line, swatted the ball back into play before the ball hit the ground, where it landed straight into the arms of his teammate who simply needed to ground the ball.
YouTube it and you will be amazed. It amazed the Tongan national selectors so much that he made his international debut against Samoa in April this year, and was selected for this year's World Cup squad. Fonua would be a great coup for any rugby union team, and would be a great addition to the very competitive Tongan national rugby union side.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Blues (would be a great development player behind Francis Saili and Ma'a Nonu in the midfield, and Charles Piutau and Waisake Naholo on the wings, possibly even pushing for a starting role ahead of Naholo), Chiefs (could learn a lot off to experienced, powerful midfielders like Fonua in Robbie Fruean and Charlie Ngatai), Crusaders (would be thrusted straight into the Crusaders' starting line-up alongside Ray Lee-Lo in the midfield, as he would be on the bench if he opted to play wing at this franchise behind Guildford and Dagg), and Highlanders (would be a good, solid development winger for the Highlanders, possibly pushing ahead of Kurt Baker or Patrick Osbourne as starting winger or the franchise if he excelled in Dunedin).
11. Shaun Johnson (New Zealand Warriors)
Rumoured to be interested in switching codes for Olympic Sevens glory, Johnson would undoubtedly be a huge asset for any rugby union team. Off contract with the Warriors since the end of this season, the 23-year-old has a huge array of skills, whether it be his step, his passing skills, his kicking ability, his ability to spot gaps and beat defenders or his blinding pace that he has used to chase down countless attacking threats, he has been an integral part of the Warriors set-up in the NRL for the past few years now.
And this form has carried him into the Kiwis squad, having been selected for this year's World Cup squad, as well as the NRL All-Stars squad.
Playing as either a halfback or five-eighth in league, Johnson's skills would be best utilised in union at either first-five or fullback, where his attacking, kicking and cover defence abilities would shine the brightest. Likely to move to union within the next few years for a shot at Olympic glory in the Sevens arena.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Blues (Johnson's talent would probably have to demote Baden Kerr to the bench, although that would have to happen later on in the campaign, as Johnson would need to get used to the first-five role in union; would be attracted to the Blues to join up with former Kiwis teammate and childhood hero Benji Marshall), Chiefs (would serve as a very good back-up to Aaron Cruden, possibly even getting a few starts ahead of the All Black, but would get more game time elsewhere) and Crusaders (would start at fullback ahead of Colin Slade, with too much talent at first-five for Johnson to get his break here), and Highlanders (would serve as a back-up fullback to All Black superstar Ben Smith, but, like at the Chiefs, may be turned off by spending a considerable amount of time on the bench).
12. Kevin Locke (New Zealand Warriors)
Currently a superstar within the Warriors set-up, Locke is currently off contract with the Warriors, and, like Johnson, is reportedly looking for a move to union for a shot at Olympic Sevens gold.
He may be forced out of the Warriors set-up too, with the arrival of English superstar Sam Tomkins from the Wigan Warriors as the highest paid New Zealand Warrior of all-time probably pushing Locke out of the Warriors starting line-up.
This would put off Locke hugely, and rightly so, as it would be a huge waste of talent. This could force him into union, and his presence in the 15-man code would be hugely welcomed, as his considerable attacking talent would make him a first-choice fullback for many Super Rugby sides, or, as Locke would like, a first-choice player for the All Black Sevens team.
Watch this space.
Teams that would benefit from his inclusion: Crusaders (could possibly start ahead of Colin Slade, although that would take a few weeks to have happen, as Locke would need to get used to the game of union before taking Slades place), and Highlanders (would serve as a great back-up to Ben Smith, possibly even pushing the in-form All Black to the wing, as Locke's talents could not be ignored).
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