Rugby is like baking with distinctive frameworks proven to create success but room to tinker with the recipe to enhance that prospect.

We're not talking the culinary basics of Alison Holst infused with the outlandish molecular design of Heston Blumenthal but every rugby coach bases his credentials on having all the ingredients in the mix for a strong foundation before adding the trimmings.

Those components come out of the oven in Dunedin tonight as the Highlanders and Blues lead off the New Zealand section of the revamped Super Rugby series, the Crusaders start their title defence at home tomorrow against the Chiefs, and the Hurricanes play in South Africa.

Five groups of Kiwi coaches have been preparing their sides since their selection meetings and squads were revealed months before Christmas.


They've had to allow for the annual staggered return of All Blacks and their future national duties, bring new players up to speed with the team philosophies, make adjustments for rule tweaks and refereeing interpretations, deal with inevitable injuries and weld the players and 2018 blueprint.

That's just the start. Issues will escalate for some teams, while others will have a more regular performance chart and a few will mix plateaus with strange blips as those of us watching from outside the franchise bases and touchlines chew through loads of theories.

Practice games have been and gone. Those results are irrelevant and only the coaches really know what they wanted, what they saw and what they gained from those tussles.

Every New Zealand side is chasing the Stormers and Lions, who opened the competition with victories in South Africa, while former All Blacks coach John Mitchell steps back into work in charge of the bye-tied Bulls, who start their campaign hosting the Hurricanes in the final game this weekend.

The biggest gain on reputation was Aaron Mauger taking over at the Highlanders.

Kickoff for Kiwis is under the roof in Dunedin, where conditions will allow the Highlanders and Blues a firm chance to reveal their intentions. The hosts finished seventh last year in the points tally and fourth in the New Zealand section with four more wins than the erratic Blues.

In the off-season, squads shelled familiar faces: Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Rene Ranger and Piers Francis left the Blues for overseas opportunities, and Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Osborne, Jason Emery, Gareth Evans and Shane Christie hit the exit path from the Highlanders.

Both groups picked up classy young prospects but the biggest gain on reputation was Aaron Mauger taking over at the Highlanders, with his coaching debut pitching him against his All Black contemporary Tana Umaga.

Mauger moved from playing to coaching for a spell with the Crusaders, then Leicester, where there were struggles before he signed on to assist at the Highlanders and has been chosen as their third coach in three seasons to follow Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown.


Those changes have not disturbed the Highlanders' run to the playoffs in the past four years, while the Blues are looking for any signs of a significant finish as memories fade of their last playoff in 2011.

More stability has been shown in two campaigns with Umaga, but that has also been the case or more with the other four New Zealand sides in the competition's toughest section, so victory tonight would be a welcome recipe to start 2018.