Wellington – Injuries to four key players and the return of star centre Sonny Bill Williams to rugby league has put the Waikato Chiefs on the back foot as they prepare to open their Super 15 title defence Friday.
The Chiefs' away game against the Otago Highlanders is just one of the highlights as the southern hemisphere competition gets into full swing, after last week's first games featured only Australian teams.
The key match-up in South Africa is a clash of the country's titans, the Northern Bulls and Western Stormers, while fierce Australian rivals the Queensland Reds and the NSW Waratahs square off in Brisbane.
In Dunedin, the Chiefs open without Brendon Leonard (cheekbone), Robbie Robinson (broken leg) and Andrew Horrell (fractured foot). Richard Kahui, set to play in Japan after this season, is out with a shoulder problem.
All Blacks wing Leila Masaga is out of the starting line-up as he recovers from a knee injury, and Williams, who has played in Japan and won a heavyweight boxing title since lifting the Super 15 trophy, is back in Australia's NRL.
But despite being seriously under-strength, coach Dave Rennie said his team were looking forward to returning to action after thrashing the Coastal Sharks to clinch the championship in Hamilton last August.
“It's good to finally start the competition. I know the boys have been training hard and are looking forward to getting stuck into it, especially our new caps,” He said.
With Kahui still plagued by his troublesome shoulder and Williams gone, the Chiefs present an inexperienced midfield.
Fullback Tim Nanai-Williams has been converted into an outside centre with debutant Bundee Aki inside him, while former Blues fly-half Gareth Anscombe will wear the 15 jersey.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, will put their star off-season signing Ma'a Nonu up against the greenhorn Aki, and with All Blacks Ben Smith at fullback and Hosea Gear on the wing, the southerners possess a potent attack.
The Bulls against the Stormers, South Africa's North-South derby, promises to be a fiery affair after both sides made the play-offs last year but failed to progress to the finals.
Jean de Villiers will lead the Stormers in place of Schalk Burger, who continues to have injury problems and is unlikely to be available until after they play the Chiefs on March 9.
“It's a very unfortunate scenario for Schalk as first it was the knee, but now that the knee is finally better he has picked up a calf strain,” coach Allister Coetzee said.
The Stormers can be expected to target Bulls prop Morne Mellett, who will be making his Super debut under their new forwards coach Victor Matfield, the formidable former Springbok lock.
Matfield led the Bulls to two Super titles, and his experience in seen as crucial in guiding the team back to the top.
The Reds, who disappointed in last week's loss to the ACT Brumbies, have made two changes for their grudge match against Sydney's Waratahs.
Lock Rob Simmons will be joined in the second row by Ed O'Donoghue, while Chris Feauai-Sautia comes in at outside centre.
Like the other leading teams, the Reds have injury woes with internationals Will Genia and Anthony Faingaa missing in the backline.
The Waratahs, who had a first-round bye, will be missing regular playmaker Berrick Barnes who has a knee injury.
In the weekend's other matches, the Wellington Hurricanes host the Auckland Blues, the Central Cheetahs are at home to the Coastal Sharks and the ACT Brumbies, the early competition leaders, are away against the Melbourne Rebels.
The one international fixture sees the Australia's Western Force play competition newcomers Southern Kings of South Africa in Port Elizabeth. – Sapa-AFP