The New Zealand Conference of the Super Rugby campaign begins with two highly-anticipated clashes. Tomorrow night the Highlanders host defending champions the Chiefs inside Dunedin's covered stadium, while the Hurricanes and Blues do battle in Wellington on Saturday night.
Sports editor Peter White casts his eye over the five New Zealand franchises and assesses their chances of emulating the Chiefs in 2013.
Head coach Dave Rennie said at the season launch that "we are very happy with our squad. We know a lot about these players, their work ethic and character, therefore we have picked the new guys coming in on those attributes too".
That says a lot about why the Chiefs were so good last year and will be again this campaign. Players are selected for more than their rugby ability or what province they play for. It is the same team culture Robbie Deans installed in the Crusaders during their glory days and means the players are accountable for their actions on and off the field. Rennie and his key assistant, former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith, were never interested in a one-off successful season and took measures last year to ensure they can build a long term legacy of success at the Chiefs by re-signing the bulk of the squad.
That means the co-captain experiment that worked so well of Craig Clarke and Liam Messam will again dominate the leadership group and ensure both players get some personal space from media commitments other captains can only dream about. But do not underestimate the influence of other natural leaders in the squad like NZ Maori All Blacks captain Tanerau Latimer, former Samoan skipper Mo Schwalger and injury-prone midfielder Richard Kahui. This is a squad with no obvious weaknesses and enough depth for real competition for places in the match day 22.
Do not expect to see any change of tactics in 2013. The formula that worked so well was based on high intensity, aggressive, territory-based rugby, with a selection of brilliant steppers and finishers to cash in when fatigue set in like Aaron Cruden, Robbie Robinson, Tim Nanai-Williams and Lelia Masaga - all set alight by the precociously talented Tawera Kerr-Barlow at halfback.
Likely Finish: Champions. There is no reason at all why the Chiefs cannot win back-to-back titles. All the attributes are there with highly competent and confident coaches, well-worked game plans that succeed, passionate and dedicated players with the right work ethic and a fortress-like home stadium.
The absolute fall from grace by the Blues to finish 12th in 2012, after making the semis the year before, was unexpected with a strong squad on paper. In hindsight Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu were never going to settle in Auckland after being fired by the Hurricanes, and the state Weepu turned up in physically was a disgrace.
Head coach Sir John Kirwan has moved quickly to establish a new attitude in the team and to talk up the chances of his brand new, young squad. Kirwan does optimistic better than anyone else in sport coaching but he may find himself needing to take a more realistic view this time round. The Blues lack experience and firepower in all the key areas and when the usual injuries occur will be badly wanting in the depth stakes. But there is talent to burn in the brilliant attacking fullback Charles Piutau, flanker Steven Luatua, midfielder Malakai Fekitoa and winger George Moala. They will make mistakes and lose games but they will also play some sizzling footy along the way.
Making team jester Ali Williams captain was a move from left field and a slap in the face for Bay of Plenty's Luke Braid, who led the team with such dignity last year. Every great team has a strong axis in the No8, 9 and 10 jerseys and this is a potential weak area for the Blues. Much will depend on how Weepu goes but first-five Baden Kerr and halfback Bryn Hall will have to go from ITM Cup level to Super Rugby standard in a heartbeat.
Likely Finish: Seventh. For the first time, the Blues are likely to win the wooden spoon among the New Zealand franchises. Expectations will be so high on the shoulders of Kirwan's young recruits that just getting them through the mental tribulations of professional sport could be his first triumph. For that reason the young Blues may enjoy their road trips and play their best rugby away from Eden Park.
The pressure is on coach Todd Blackadder to guide the Crusaders to their first title win since 2008 and he will be without his trump card in captain Richie McCaw, who is on a six-month break from rugby. But this gives the outstanding Kieran Read the opportunity to fine tune his leadership skills before he takes over from McCaw as the All Blacks captain in June. Dan Carter had a relatively quiet Super Rugby campaign last year and he will need to be in top form if the Crusaders are to press for another title.
The Crusaders pack looks as tough as ever, despite Ben Franks joining the Hurricanes to get a starting role. Much will depend on the youngest of the four Whitelock brothers in the squad - Sam and Luke - and the powerful front row of Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett and Corey Flynn. Matt Todd was seen as the logical successor to McCaw in the All Blacks and was called into the squad as cover during the Rugby World Cup. But since then he has lost his place in the pecking order to Bay of Plenty's Sam Cane so will be chafing at the bit to start every game for the Crusaders and show he has what it takes to perform consistently.
Of the newcomers, winger Johnny McNicholl looks the best prospect to get regular game time and will love to get a chance to showcase his pace on the harder grounds. Tom Taylor was called in to cover the All Blacks in November and his goal kicking may well be a trump card if Carter's off his game.
Likely Finish: Semifinals. With every Crusaders campaign the goal is the same - winning the title. This year's squad has a distinctively youthful look to it and it will be interesting to see how quickly the new players and coaching team can develop into a potential title winner.
No team will look forward to playing Jamie Joseph's boys in the red hot atmosphere inside their covered stadium in Dunedin. They played an exciting brand of rugby last year but eventually missed the semis because the squad was not strong enough to handle a string of crippling injuries to key players.
But they have better depth now. All Black second-five Ma'a Nonu was a troubled figure at the Blues last year but he is world-class, and if anyone can get him firing it is Joseph. Colin Slade, the unluckiest player in recent memory - two broken jaws and a broken leg in two seasons - will add quality in the No10 jersey, as will Lima Sopoaga, who is another class act who missed months with injury in 2012. Hosea Gear is a destructive ball runner and prolific try scorer while flanker John Hardie is a great fetcher and scrapper for the ball.
The key difference in 2013 is recruiting the world's best loosehead prop in Tony Woodcock and the strongest scrummaging lock in 38-year-old Brad Thorn. The Highlanders scrum has been their Achilles heel in recent years so they will toughen that area up alongside hooker and fellow All Black Andrew Hore. Thorn returns home for his swansong season after playing in Japan and helping Leinster win the Heineken Cup. His influence on Jarrad Hoeata may help reinvigorate the hard-working flanker/lock after the former All Black lost ground to several other players last year.
Likely Finish: Semifinals. Many New Zealand rugby fans hold the Highlanders as their second favourite team. There is a lot to like about what has been done to turn around their fortunes and 2013 seems as good a time as any to make a statement like the Chiefs did last year. Definite play-off prospects.
Head coach Hammett and his capable assistant Alama Ieremia have 26 of last season's squad back and that stability has been lacking in recent years at the Hurricanes. After the tumultuous 2011 campaign, which led to the removal of All Blacks Andrew Hore, Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu, there was rejuvenation in the Hurricanes camp. They scored 58 tries, way more than the other New Zealand franchises, with the Crusaders and Chiefs next best with 47. Losses to the Chiefs by two points and the Highlanders by three hurt their semifinal chances and to have to settle for eighth place was disappointing.
But 2013 is looking as promising as any for the Hurricanes. Gifted halfback TJ Perenara is back from a broken ankle that severely dented his team's chances last year and certainly cost him an All Blacks jersey. Beauden Barrett has proved he can handle Super Rugby and international levels so expect to see more running and evidence of his new found confidence. But the loss of Cory Jane with a serious knee injury will be noticed. Ardie Savea is just 19 but in last year's ITM Cup he showed some sublime skills that could ignite the Hurricanes off the bench. He will have a slow start following his four-week ban for a tip tackle in a pre-season game against the Chiefs, but he will learn plenty from All Black Victor Vito, who is one player Hammett will want extra effort from on a consistent basis.
Talking up the Hurricanes is risky at best. Since 1996 they have made just one final and reached the semifinals on only five other occasions, but looking through their squad they will be serious competitors but may just miss the semis.
Likely Finish: Fifth. There is no doubt that if the Hurricanes can keep their core group of outstanding players on the field, and take their goal kicking opportunities, they have a realistic chance of finals footy.
Debutants aplenty in first line-up
The Chiefs team to play the Highlanders in their first game of the Super Rugby competition in Dunedin tomorrow includes fullback Tim Nanai-Williams at centre and first-five Gareth Anscombe at fullback.
Chiefs midfielders Bundee Aki and Charlie Ngatai have both been cleared to play, while Andrew Horrell, Robbie Robinson, Brendon Leonard, and Richard Kahui all remain out injured. Aki, Anscombe, winger Patrick Osborne and hooker Rhys Marshall will all make their Chiefs debuts.
Chiefs: Gareth Anscombe, Patrick Osborne, Tim Nanai-Williams, Bundee Aki, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Fritz Lee, Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (c), Ben Afeaki, Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu. Reserves: Rhys Marshall, Ben Tameifuna, Michael Fitzgerald, Tanerau Latimer, Augustine Pulu, Charlie Ngatai, Lelia Masaga.