Rugby: New-look sides pose plenty of questions

Aaron Cruden has enjoyed a full pre-season with the Chiefs. Photo / Getty
Aaron Cruden has enjoyed a full pre-season with the Chiefs. Photo / Getty

It wasn't all that long ago the Crusaders and Chiefs were the two titans of the New Zealand conference, battling each other for Super Rugby titles and All Blacks berths.

But both sides will carry a different complexion into Saturday night's season-opening clash in Christchurch, with the ambiguity surrounding the new competition seeping into both franchises.

The Chiefs appear in better shape than their opponents at AMI Stadium and should again be pushing for a playoff place. But coach Dave Rennie's first team of the 2016 season did highlight a gulf in experience within the squad.

Much will depend on a quartet of All Blacks and, in particular, the form of Aaron Cruden, returning to the scene of his last competitive action on a rugby field. The first five, who has been on the sidelines since rupturing knee ligaments last April, will form with Tawera Kerr-Barlow a dynamic halves combination, while the importance of Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick will be magnified in the forwards.

Those four are the only players in the Chiefs' matchday squad who have made more than 50 appearances for the franchise and, while there is plenty of talent elsewhere, youth is the over-riding feature. Rennie's run-on XV has an average age of 23.9 and features four Super Rugby debutants.

Japanese prop Hiroshi Yamashita will at least bring a wealth of international experience to the front row, boasting 49 caps for Japan, while Auckland flanker and Canterbury No 8 Tom Sanders will join Cane in the loose forwards.

Nineteen-year-old Shaun Stevenson is the only debutant in the backline that, while gutted by a number of off-season departures, still contains enough quality to threaten the Crusaders' defence.

The home side, meanwhile, are in a similar state of flux as they enter the season. Coach Todd Blackadder has named three debutants in his run-on side, with Tim Boys and Richie Mo'unga handed the unenviable task of replacing Messrs McCaw and Carter.

The forward pack, though, still features an all All-Black front row, with Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read complementing that trio. But the backline, aside from the blockbusting Nemani Nadolo, possesses an especially callow feel.

Crusaders: David Havili, Jone Macilai, Sean Wainui, Kieron Fonotia, Nemani Nadolo, Richie Mo'unga, Andy Ellis, Kieran Read, Tim Boys, Jordan Taufua, Samuel Whitelock (c), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Reserves: Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Mike Alaalatoa, Jimmy Tupou, Reed Prinsep, Leon Fukofuka, Ben Volavola, Johnny McNicholl.

Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Shaun Stevenson, Seta Tamanivalu, Charlie Ngatai, James Lowe, Aaron Cruden (c), Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Tom Sanders, Sam Cane, Taleni Seu, Brodie Retallick, Michael Allardice, Hiroshi Yamashita, Rhys Marshall, Pauliasi Manu. Reserves: Nathan Harris, Mitchell Graham, Siate Tokolahi, Maama Vaipulu, Johan Bardoul, Brad Weber, Anton Lienert-Brown, Latu Vaeno.

- NZ Herald

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