Our team of rugby writers countdown to the New Zealand franchises' entry into Super rugby, beginning tomorrow night with a mouth-watering clash between the defending champion Chiefs and the competition's most successful side, the Crusaders.

Monday: Highlanders
Tuesday: Crusaders
Wednesday: Hurricanes
Depth is key in Chiefs' quest for three-in-a-row
There are a number of obstacles a defending champion must clear to remain at the front of the field.

Some can be controlled, like individual complacency causing standards to slip. Others, such as the competition closing the gap, are outside influences.

The detrimental factors can be intangible - a lack of desire after already achieving goals - or more concrete - an arduous schedule designed for parity.


This Chiefs team, though, appear as well-equipped as any champions to rise above the impediments and repeat their Super Rugby success. Read more...
Co-leadership role chance for Cruden to speak his mind
If co-captaining the Chiefs changes nothing else for Aaron Cruden, it at least provides a legitimate reason to chirp at the ref.

The first five-eighth was already one of the more vocal members of the champions' set-up, on the training paddock, in the changing sheds and on the playing field, writes Kris Shannon.

Wynne Gray's take: Rennie and Co stars at scouting
Scouting is just one part of the Super 15 jigsaw; getting players to sign on and then coaching them to success are all parts of the rugby puzzle which the Chiefs have grasped.

All those ingredients have gone into the Chiefs mix as they have surged to titles in the last two campaigns, rolling the Sharks and then outlasting the Brumbies.

The ones to watch
Star man: Brodie Retallick
Aaron Cruden has serious claims to being the Chiefs' most important player, but on this occasion we're going to celebrate a lower-profile player of immense power, skill and work rate - in fact, everything that is good about the Chiefs. Retallick is a key performer in the lineout but he probably hurts opposition teams more around the ruck. His cleanouts are, frankly, terrifying.

New man: Robbie Fruean
Midfielder Fruean has a new heart valve to pump blood around his massive frame and a desire to reach a consistency of performance that he couldn't quite reach at the Crusaders. He says his fitness is better than at any other time over the past four years, which could be a concern for opposition defences. The Chiefs lacked a big man in midfield last year following Sonny Bill Williams' departure. Fruean provides that size and could be another inspired signing by the champions' brains trust.

Chiefs team page
Finished last year: 1st, 1st in NZ conference
Won: 14
Lost: 4
Coach: Dave Rennie
Captains: Aaron Cruden and Liam Messam
Home ground: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Capacity: 25,000
Players in: Robbie Fruean (Crusaders), James Lowe (Tasman), Jamie Mackintosh (Highlanders), Tom Marshall (Crusaders), Mils Muliaina (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), Liam Squire (Tasman), Matt Symons (Canterbury), Kane Thompson (Canon Eagles)
Players out: Craig Clarke (Connacht), Romana Graham (Exeter Chiefs), Fritz Lee (Clermont Auvergne), Brendon Leonard (Zebre), Richard Kahui (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Lelia Masaga (Honda Heat), Patrick Osborne (Highlanders), Solomona Sakalia (Released), Toby Smith (Rebels)

Stats from 2013
28.1 average points per game#
3 average tries per game#
79 % lineout success*
14.01min average time in possession*
132.2 average tackles per game^
# best in comp
* worst in comp
^ second best in comp

Aaron Mauger updates nzherald.co.nz on the Crusaders as they prepare to start the 2014 season against raining champions the Chiefs, we ask what's different and how can they regain the Super Rugby crown?.