Rugby: Chiefs, Crusaders look most likely

Brad Thorn makes a break for the Highlanders against the Chiefs during their pre-season match at...
Brad Thorn makes a break for the Highlanders against the Chiefs during their pre-season match at Owen Delany Park in Taupo earlier this month. (Photo by Joel Ford/Getty Images)
We're off again, or at least we have a few games from Australia to whet our 2013 rugby interest.

All sorts of hoopla will come out of the Sunburnt Country about the 18th chapter of Super rugby but classifying this opening round as a marketing dream will be a step too far even for our transtasman cronies.

Super rugby is billed as a massive tri-nations provincial series. But tonight looks more like an event for sparklers rather than any whizz-bang skyrockets and trumpets flourish.

The Rebels against the Force in Melbourne. Yep that's right, the 13th placed side from last year against the 14th in a city without any significant rugby pedigree.

Perhaps there is a bit of missionary zeal going on here from Sanzar while they know more Kiwis will probably be tuned to the slap-and-thrash 20-over cricket between New Zealand and England.

An early start in Australia allows them to host the Lions tour matches and three tests when they lob in late May with an early July finish.

For those here and in South Africa, who have been yearning for the return of the oval code, the action starts next weekend with some hefty local derbies.

Last year's runners up, the Sharks, open up with an away game against the Cheetahs but nothing like the long distance travel which damaged their valiant late charge for the title.

Regular frontliners the Bulls begin at home in Pretoria while the Republic's new franchise, the Kings, take their first competition steps when they host the visiting Force.

Those of us who believe the New Zealand conference is the toughest group by some distance will get a first glimpse of that action in Dunedin where the Highlanders' heavy recruitment will be tested by the champion Chiefs.

The Highlanders have been dented with international centre Tamati Ellison unlikely to play any round-robin games after shoulder surgery and wing Declan O'Donnell suffering similarly.

But they will be looking for an early return from the investment in Ma'a Nonu, Brad Thorn and Tony Woodcock who have joined a collection of their All Black colleagues.

Andrew Hore will captain the side when his ban is lifted while World Cup five-eighths Colin Slade is making another comeback attempt after his fearful injury run.

The Highlanders will be fit - Jamie Joseph and his staff will have seen to that - but they may not have quite the loose-forward or three-quarter sting to be the real deal.

Discounting the Chiefs is not a smart move, not after their surge to the 2012 title under the new coaching group led by Dave Rennie.

The bulk of their star quality remains, except for Sonny Bill Williams, while there have been several interesting gains and so far, they have avoided the injury curse from last year. Bundee Aki offers midfield enterprise while fit props Toby Smith, Ben Afeaki and halfback Brendon Leonard widen the selection choices and Ross Filipo brings experience.

Can the Chiefs repeat? They can because they understand what it takes to win their competition and have a coaching staff attuned to those needs.

Already shorn of the feisty talents of Cory Jane, the Hurricanes rock up on their home ground for an opening challenge from the Blues.

They have two of the nation's most promising backs, TJ Perenara to guide their prospects, senior soldier Conrad Smith to mentor from midfield, and a bunch of scrappers and raw talent like Ardie Savea in the pack.

Ben Franks' shift north to the front row should give the Canes better stability but they need to convince more with their all round clout and set piece certainty.

The Blues have a swag of players new to Super rugby garnished by a coaching crew awash in experience.

John Kirwan has been in international battlefields with his backs coach Grant Doorey, Mick Byrne has been with the All Blacks for some time while Graham Henry led them for more than 100 tests.

The mesh of those elements will fascinate as the Blues search for some redress from the troubles which have tormented the franchise for too long.

The shift into fulltime pro rugby will be a huge move for many. They have the skills but need to apply them consistently over what will be a very demanding campaign. Finding the right blend between a coaching group who have been there done that and players starting their careers will be a huge challenge.

Getting a solid start in the series will help but the initial segment is rugged - the Hurricanes, Crusaders then the Bulls.

As strange as the series' start seems this weekend, it is more bizarre for the Crusaders.

They have to wait until the third round, on March 1, before they enter the competition and then play 10 successive games, including a trip to South Africa, before their second rest.

It is a rugged schedule but this squad is used to adversity and even without their supreme commander Richie McCaw until the last three rounds, you suspect they will find a way to qualify.

The heavily decorated franchise has not won the title since 2008.

They made the final two years ago but that is slim pickings for coach Todd Blackadder and a group used to winning.

Got a lazy dollar? Bung it on the Crusaders and Chiefs to qualify out of the NZ conference.

- Wynne Gray of the New Zealand Herald

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