Wellington – Seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders open their 2013 Super 15 campaign on Friday against bitter rivals Auckland Blues while South Africa stages a potentially torrid heavyweight clash.
Blues coach John Kirwan, whose squad includes a large number of newcomers to Super rugby, surprised the Wellington Hurricanes last week, is under no illusions about the size of the task facing his side against the Crusaders.
“As games go, this is just under a Test match. Blues versus Crusaders is the game of the season so you've got to be ready for it because it should be,” Kirwan said, comparing the match to a Milan football derby.
Kirwan, tasked with rebuilding the Blues, has kept the same line-up that performed impressively against the Hurricanes, which means only four All Blacks will take the field.
In contrast, the Crusaders have 10 All Blacks, including seven forwards, inside backs Andy Ellis and Dan Carter directing play and All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg, who will start on the wing, indicating a desire to play wide.
The Sharks and Stormers will both be looking for vastly improved performances when they clash at King's Park in Durban on Saturday for the first time since the Sharks snatched victory in last year's nail-biting semi-final.
The Sharks were pushed hard by the Cheetahs last week and have had plenty to work on, particularly protecting the ball at the breakdown.
“The Stormers hit you hard, so you need to make sure you maintain possession when they do. We've worked on that in training. It's a big focus,” coach John Plumtree said.
The Stormers fell to defeat in their season-opener last week, with Morne Steyn kicking six penalties to steer the Northern Bulls to a 25-17 victory.
“Basic errors cost us and it meant we conceded a lot of set-piece penalties and weren't able to get out of our half,” said coach Allister Coetzee.
“Yes, it was our first game of the season, and we were playing at altitude, but those mistakes in our game cost us.”
The defending champions Waikato Chiefs host the Cheetahs at the start of their four-match Australasian road trip.
Injuries have forced the Chiefs to use the same makeshift backline that outplayed the Otago Highlanders for Saturday's game against the Cheetahs, who produced a spirited but unsuccessful fightback against the Sharks.
Despite the high number of injuries in his squad, Chiefs coach Dave Rennie remains confident in their ability to perform.
“We're not too concerned about what other people think. We were pretty confident we could win the (Highlanders) game even with the guys we had missing.”
The Cheetahs have the long flight from South Africa against them and while they have been bolstered by the return of talisman Heinrich Brussow, an injury to Waltie Vermeulen means they are travelling with only three locks.
The NSW Waratahs are at home to the Melbourne Rebels, the Queensland Reds play the Hurricanes in Brisbane and the Bulls are at home in Pretoria to the Western Force.
Early competition leaders ACT Brumbies have a bye along with the Highlanders and Southern Kings. – Sapa-AFP