Preview: Crusaders v Chiefs
The holders start the defence of their Super Rugby title against their biggest rival for the New Zealand conference, the Crusaders, on Friday.
Whomever can follow up their recent pre-season form and seal a win in Christchurch will become warm favourites to top the local table in July.
Yes, July is when the regular-season ends in this competition before the play-offs, which means squad depth is going to be a factor in success.
The Chiefs possess the strongest group in terms of quality in numbers and while the Crusaders also have class, it is Dave Rennie's side who'll be the team to beat as the likes of Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Cruden, Tim Nanai-Williams and Tom Marshall are in their prime.
Conversely, one has to wonder about the Crusaders this season as while they have internationals in Kieran Read, the Whitelocks and Israel Dagg to name a few, the departures of Marshall and Robbie Freuan leaves them a little light in midfield. A lot therefore is asked of Reynold Lee-Lo.
Mass injuries though in the Chiefs camp are set to play a role in this result as the Crusaders enter in much better shape than their visitors.
Selection for Friday hands Johnny McNicholl and Nafi Tuitavake chances to shine on the wing for the Crusaders, with the former having scored a hat-trick last time out. Tyler Bleyendaal is given the nod over Tom Taylor at fly-half while there is no Read due to him being eased into 2014.
Read's absence is cushioned by the Chiefs being without Sam Cane and Tanerau Latimer in their line-up due to injury so Tevita Koloamatangi is handed his Super Rugby debut on the openside, with Kane Thompson also getting in ahead of Nick Crosswell, who looks set to cover the back-row.
A further fillip for the hosts is that in Read's absence they have a ready-made leader taking over the job in Richie McCaw, who is itching to play after missing last year's opening to the competition due to a sabbatical. Valiant understudy Matt Todd will still expect ample game time.
Meanwhile only six of the Chiefs' XV that edged the Brumbies in last year's final will run out for kick-off at AMI Stadium, which illustrates Rennie's injury problems at the moment. We stress, however, that both teams have named highly impressive benches that include six All Blacks.
That call from Todd Blackadder, who names four of those on the pine, highlights his intent to acknowledge pre-season form as there is no Zac Guildford in the 23. Wyatt Crockett also misses out - albeit he's on the bench - as the ever-improving Tim Perry is given a start. Blackadder accepts nothing but the best and if his pack performs at that level, they should rock the champions and take the initiative in the conference.
Minds also go back to the semi-final and Dan Carter's missed kicks and Cruden's intercept so add revenge to the pot and we're set for an epic.
Prediction: Home advantage and the Chiefs missing Bundee Aki, Robbie Robinson, Cane, Latimer, Marshall and Gareth Anscombe means we go for the hosts. Expect Bleyendaal to be busy off the tee as they should gain regular front foot ball to force penalties. Crusaders by 7!
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Reynold Lee-Lo, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nafi Tuitavake, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Richie McCaw (capt), 6 George Whitelock, 5 Dominic Bird, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Rob Thompson.
Chiefs: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Kane Thompson, 7 Tevita Koloamatangi, 6 Liam Messam (capt) 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Mike Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Ben Afeaki, 19 Matt Symons/Liam Squire, 20 Nick Crosswell, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Andrew Horrell/Anton Leinert-Brown, 23 James Lowe.
Date: Friday, February 21
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
Television match official: Chris Watt (New Zealand)