Crusaders' tough task first-up for champs with weakened squad

If the Chiefs wanted an early examination of their three-peat chances, visiting the Crusaders and leaving 10 players at home fits the bill.

The defending champions will take a severely weakened squad to AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Friday night, kicking off New Zealand's involvement in the Super rugby season.

Sam Cane was the latest to limp to the treatment room, suffering a knee injury that will see him on the sidelines for four weeks during the pre-season victory over the Blues.

The Chiefs were short of 13 players in the 43-19 win on Friday night at the International Stadium in Rotorua and, while some of the casualties could return for the Crusaders, others will miss more than just week one.


But the depth amassed by the Chiefs means coach Dave Rennie will take a strong squad to Christchurch regardless.

"It's a tough job first up, travelling to Christchurch, but it's a good opportunity for our boys to get an early measure of where we're at," Rennie said.

"We're hoping we'll get maybe three or four guys back. Obviously we lost Sam, so we may be without about 10 but, whatever side we'll take down, it will be a competitive team."

Among that team could be midfield pair Charlie Ngatai and Andrew Horrell, whose fitness will become clearer as the week progresses, while the game may arrive too soon for new signing Liam Squire.

Others, who had offseason operations, were always going to sit out the season's start, and Rennie expects to welcome back Gareth Anscombe, Tom Marshall and Tanerau Latimer within three weeks.

Mo Schwalger and Bundee Aki will be the next to return, but Robbie Robinson (hip) and Hika Elliot (neck) are longer-term concerns.

While that list represents a lot to leave in Hamilton, Rennie was confident his charges - led by co-captains Liam Messam and Aaron Cruden - had enough quality to take a solid first step on the search for a hat-trick of titles.

The midfield, for example, is an area of real strength and, after the recruitment of Mils Muliaina and Robbie Fruean, Rennie will have selection problems of a positive kind when Ngatai and Horrell are fully fit.

"At some stage it's going to be a headache - not at this stage because there's quite a few of them missing," Rennie said.

"If we can get a couple of guys back it'll give us the full complement of what we need for the weekend."

The opening weekend will always come with some questions, but Rennie was certain of the quality of the Crusaders.

The Chiefs have ended the seven-time champs' season in the semifinals for two years running, and it will be no surprise to see the two heavy-weights are again battling it out come July.

"They got their All Blacks in a lot earlier, so I think they're a little more organised and oiled for this time of year," Rennie said. "If you go on paper, they're the best side in the comp."

Healthy or not, the Chiefs will surely have something to say about that.