MENTION the pressure of being the defending champions and Hawke's Bay's Highlanders hooker Ash Dixon sidesteps it with ease.

"We've lost a few players from last year and this season is a whole new ball game. Because there are more teams and the format has changed this year's Super Rugby title is more difficult to win ... at the same time that's why it's so exciting," Dixon said before the Highlanders' final pre-season outing against the Waratahs in Queenstown yesterday.

Dixon is correct. The Highlanders have lost some of last year's squad with experienced loosies Nasi Manu and John Hardie the most notable departures but 29 of last year's players have returned including the four World Cup-winning All Blacks Aaron and Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo.

A former Blues and Hurricanes player, Dixon, 27, also had every right to mention the new format. With Japan's Sunwolves, Argentina's Jaguares and the Kings of South Africa joining the fray 18 teams are involved.


All five New Zealand teams will play six matches against the other Kiwi franchises (two teams once and two teams home and away). They will play all five of the Australian teams and four from one of the two South African conferences which have absorbed the three new teams.

A 2008 world champion with the New Zealand under-20 team, Dixon, said the Highlanders were champing at the bit for their three pre-season encounters (they drew 19-all with the Crusaders and lost 45-38 to Dan Carter's Racing Metro side before yesterday's game).

"We had a long six weeks of training."

A Magpie for all but two seasons since 2008, Dixon pointed out the four World Cup winners have looked sharp since returning to the Highlanders programme.

"They are the best in the world in their positions. We all saw the lift in confidence levels and attitude when they returned ... they brought a lot of confidence to our team spirit and everyone knows our team spirit is our point of difference."

Commenting on the Magpies contingent in the Highlanders squad, Dixon said loosie Gareth Evans had his first game back against the Crusaders since breaking his arm when playing for the Magpies against Northland last year and was itching for action.

"It was unfortunate we lost Bucky [Richard Buckman] when he dislocated his shoulder when scoring a try against Racing Metro. He was in pretty good nick after the six weeks of training ... I'm sure we'll see him back with the Magpies in the Mitre 10 Cup."

Magpies winger Ryan Tongia played in the first two pre-season games. "Because he is pretty new to rugby Ryan is still learning the game. But he is fit and strong and has been putting in some good work."

As was the case last year Dixon will battle with another former age group world champion, Liam Coltman, for the Highlanders starting rake's berth.

"We both put the team first like we always have. We have a good relationship and it's important we keep things fresh."

A Maori All Black since 2013, Dixon, should he maintain his form of recent seasons, will likely turn out for the side in Chicago in November against the United States Eagles. However, he refused to look that far ahead.

"While it's in the back of my mind I don't think about it. I just want to focus on one game at a time and getting better and better with each game.

"If you look too far ahead you miss the whole point ... that's just enjoying it and not putting yourself under pressure," Dixon added.

Fellow Magpie and Highlander, prop Brendon Edmonds, only has to reproduce last year's Super Season form to earn a flight to Chicago.

Like Dixon, Hurricanes lock Mark Abbott must be considered a hot favourite for the Magpies captaincy this year. However his immediate priorities are helping the Canes return to the winning path " they had lost both pre-season games before taking on the Crusaders in Blenheim yesterday " and to improve on last year's second placing.

"We took a young team to the Force game [the Canes lost this 28-0 in Gosford] and when we put out a frontline team against the Blues [the Canes lost this 40-12 in Eketahuna last weekend] we didn't quite deliver what we wanted. It's all a learning process and we can take those learnings into the next games. While we aren't panicking, at some stage soon we want some wins," Abbott said.

A third year Cane, Abbott, who turned 26 today, agreed the Wellington-based franchise didn't capitalise on the opportunity last year's final presented.

"It's important we build on what we created. You can't look back but you can't throw away what we have created also."

Like Dixon, Abbott said he has noticed the positive influence of the Canes' six World Cup winners, captain Dane Coles, vice-captain TJ Perenara, Nehe Milner Skudder, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett and Victor Vito.

"They've had a long lay off and are pretty fizzed up."

Abbott pointed out Magpies hooker Ricky Riccitelli, who has had his injury cover stint extended at the Canes, has impressed teammates with his strength and skills. He said first-season Cane, loosie Tony Lamborn, had made the most of his opportunities and fellow loosie Hugh Renton and lock Geoff Cridge weren't far away from returning from lengthy injury spells. As is the case with Dixon, Abbott is a "one game at a time" bloke who has set simple goals for the season.

"I just want to play well, make the starting XV as much as possible and tick off my roles."

Don't be surprised if Dixon and Abbott are getting a fair chunk of media attention around the time of the August 6 final.