Can anyone stop Scott Robertson and the Crusaders?

Scott Robertson. Photo: Getty Images
Scott Robertson. Photo: Getty Images
Super Rugby kicks off this week and while it's the earliest the competition has ever started one thing remains the same - the Crusaders are favourites.

So can anyone stop the champions from Canterbury claiming an unprecedented fourth straight title?

The Crusaders completed the three-peat last season and coach Scott Robertson said they're embracing the challenge of becoming the first team to win four on the trot.

"We're walking towards it, it does bring external pressure but we're used to that and we have the chance to do something special - we're looking forward to it."

Also motivating Robertson is his snub for the All Blacks coaching job, with New Zealand Rugby preferring Ian Foster.

"It did hurt, I'll be honest," said Robertson. 

"I did a lot of reflecting on the reasons why I didn't get the job. Once I focused more on the future and what it means for me and how I can get better and looking at opportunities ahead I got excited about the Crusaders season and what we're trying to do."

The Crusaders have lost a host of senior players including Kieran Read and several other international stars, but they're still littered with current and future All Blacks.

"A lot of leadership and a lot of games of rugby and a lot of time in the jersey and experience is gone, but any dynasty or anyone that's been successful... they always have a succession plan and we've got a lot of guys that have come through our system that are desperate to be the next guy to play 100 games for the club."

Robertson and the Crusaders' biggest challengers appear to be the Chiefs, with fullback Damian McKenzie returning from injury. Former All Blacks first-five Aaron Cruden is also back at first-five and former Wales coach Warren Gatland is now at the helm.

Warren Gatland. Photo: Getty Images
Warren Gatland. Photo: Getty Images
Cruden has high hopes for the team under Gatland.

"His pedigree speaks for itself," said Cruden. 

"Just to see what he's been able to do with the Welsh national team and the British and Irish Lions, it's impressive.

"He's obviously a passionate Waikato man and Chiefs man, so to have him back in the region is amazing and to have him back in the mix here will do wonders for our team."

The Chiefs have one of the strongest squads on paper and captain Sam Cane is confident they can beat all comers.

"I don't think there's any reason why we can't. The squad has been together for a few years now and to have Aaron Cruden back in the mix with all his skill and experience," said Cane. 

"We've got a really well-balanced squad and combine that with our coaching team - I'm confident we can win the title this year."

Confidence will also be high at the Blues. They made the biggest off-season signing - picking up All Blacks first-five Beauden Barrett from the Hurricanes.

So can one man really make a team? Probably not, but Barrett will lift the Blues significantly when he does eventually play - he's not due back from an extended break until mid-April.

The Hurricanes are entering the season with plenty of unknowns.

Who takes over from Barrett at first-five? Jackson Garden-Bachop or Fletcher Smith? Spoiler - right now they're not sure.

Who will cover for injured All Blacks loosie Ardie Savea?

Jason Holland. Photo: Getty Images
Jason Holland. Photo: Getty Images
How will new coach Jason Holland, who took over after the 11th hour departure of John Plumtree to the All Blacks, go in his first head coach role?

"You've lost your head coach, your All Black first-five and you're without your best loose forward and possibly the best player for a chunk of the season, as head coach, how do you see your team overcoming those obstacles?"

"It's an exciting opportunity and we've still got a world class halfback and world class second five and throw Dane Coles, a world class hooker in the mix, and we've still got a hell of a lot of experience in the side."

Another burning question is how Holland, a former Manawatu and Munster player and Canterbury and Canes assistant coach, received the nickname Alfie?

"Oh mate, I can't see it, I don't reckon it's real. You might remember a telly show back in the day called "Alf" about an alien? Well a couple of muppets that I went to school with reckon I look like him, but I can't see it."

One thing you can't see is the Highlanders having much of an impact.

The undergunned squad has lost six All Blacks from last year, including talisman Ben Smith.

They will likely finish last in the New Zealand conference, with the Crusaders battling it out with the Chiefs at the top. The Chiefs or Crusaders will probably win the whole thing.

The Blues should finish third in the New Zealand conference and reach the playoffs for the first time in many seasons.

The Hurricanes could scrape their way into the finals in a wildcard spot, but they lack depth and are just one or two injuries away from a horror season.