Super clubs battle World Cup hangoverComment on this story
The new Super 15 season gets under way on Friday with the leading contenders fielding squads shorn of some of their most influential stars following serious injuries suffered in the World Cup.
It is four months since the All Blacks lifted the famous Webb Ellis Cup on home soil but the physical effects of the draining showpiece tournament continue to be felt by the top teams.
Defending champions the Queensland Reds, who took their first Super Rugby title with an 18-13 win over the Canterbury Crusaders in last season's final, will attempt to retain their crown without star Wallaby playmaker Quade Cooper.
Cooper ruptured knee ligaments in last October's World Cup bronze play-off win over Wales in New Zealand and appears likely to be sidelined until round-seven of the tournament on April 6.
His injury is a big blow to the Australian side, who were a revelation last season with their adventurous running rugby which saw them lose only three matches in their 15-victory charge to the title.
Meanwhile the Crusaders, the most successful Super Rugby franchise with seven titles in the 16 years of the southern hemisphere provincial championship, have injury worries of their own.
All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw is not expected to recover from foot surgery until April, while ace goal kicking fly-half Dan Carter will also miss the opening rounds with a groin injury suffered in last year's World Cup.
The Crusaders, who reached last year's final despite being forced to travel over 100 000 kilometres after Christchurch was severely damaged by earthquakes, will play their home games in a temporary stadium in the city.
But it is not all bad news for the Red and Blacks who still field a squad boasting seven All Blacks among the eight forward pack positions, as well as World Cup star Israel Dagg who leads a strong backline.
The Auckland Blues, three-time winners in the early Super Rugby years, are well placed to take advantage of any slip ups from last season's leading pair, having reinforced their ranks with All Blacks Ma'a Nonu and Piri Weepu.
Coach Pat Lam will draw on one of the most experienced squads in the tournament, with eight players from the World Cup-winning All Black squad and a total of 14 players who have played for New Zealand.
South Africa's main title threat looms from the Cape Town-based Stormers, who lost to the Bulls in the 2010 final and finished second in the regular season before going out to the Crusaders at home in last year's semis.
Captain Schalk Burger will lead the Stormers for a third successive season supported by the experience of Andries Bekker, Duane Vermeulen, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers, Gio Aplon and Juan de Jongh.
For their part the Bulls will have to make do without retired skipper and former Springbok lineout general Victor Matfield and fellow Boks Fourie du Preez, Gurthro Steenkamp and Danie Rossouw in a season of change for the three-time Super Rugby winners.
The NSW Waratahs, twice finalists, start their title charge under new coach Michael Foley and with the help of new recruits scrum-half Sarel Pretorius, Wallaby outside back Adam Ashley-Cooper and flanker Rocky Elsom.
Fellow Australians the Brumbies, will be hoping to improve on their dismal 13th place last year under the guidance of former South Africa World Cup-winning coach Jake White.
Also hoping for an improved showing are the Melbourne Rebels, who finished rock bottom in their debut Super Rugby season last year, and have splashed out on Wallaby backs Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor.
In an innovation this season, Super Rugby referees will use 'white cards' to refer to a citing commissioner alleged incidents such as biting and gouging that may have been missed by on-field officials. - Sapa-AFP