Chiefs get under way as NZ, SA join fray
Waikato Chiefs get their title defence under way this weekend without the departed Sonny Bill Williams and a couple of injured All Blacks as the heavyweights of New Zealand and South Africa finally enter the Super Rugby fray.
Australia started the new campaign alone last week to allow for the visit of the British and Irish Lions in an extended mid-season break, leaving players in the other two countries that contest the southern hemisphere competition champing at the bit.
The Chiefs open the action on Friday when they travel to Otago to face the Highlanders, while the Stormers trip to the Bulls and the renewal of the fierce rivalry between New South Wales and Queensland are Saturday's highlights.
The Chiefs will certainly miss Williams from their midfield after the off-loading All Black's return to rugby league but their 2013 triumph was no one-man achievement.
The absence of All Blacks centre Richard Kahui and scrumhalf Brendon Leonard as well as dynamic fullback Robbie Robinson through injury, though, mean coach Dave Rennie has been forced to include three uncapped players in his squad.
Powerful flanker Liam Messam as well as halfback partners Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden will be on board, however, to face off against the fast-starting Highlanders, who will hand debuts to veteran All Blacks Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock.
"It's good to finally start the competition," Rennie said. "I know the boys have been training hard and are looking forward to getting stuck into it, especially our new caps."
South Africa's Stormers are also missing some big guns, including flanker Schalk Burger, as they begin their season with the toughest of tests - a visit to Loftus Versfeld to take on the three-time champion Bulls.
Hopes are high that the Cape Town-based team's capture of exciting flyhalf Elton Jantjies will enable them to more effectively exploit the class of the likes of Juan de Villiers and Bryan Habana this year.
"Elton at 10 opens up opportunities out wide and with the back three that we have got it gives us a lot of striking power out-wide as well," Springbok skipper De Villiers said this week.
"Loftus will always be a challenge for any team going there (but) I think the fact that we are playing at night will help with that and when the adrenalin starts going you don't really think about that."
The Sharks, losing finalists last year, have to wait until Saturday to open their campaign against the Cheetahs before the Kings make the Super Rugby debut against Western Force in the final match of the weekend in Port Elizabeth.
Perth-based Force lost their opener in Melbourne last weekend and the Rebels will be relying on home advantage to again give them a boost when they take on the ACT Brumbies, who beat the Queensland Reds last Saturday.
The Reds will be back at their Lang Park fortress when they meet the Waratahs on Saturday, however, and can hardly fail to improve on last week's ill-disciplined performance in the tight.
It is a big test for the Waratahs, who are coming off their worst ever season, in their first match under new coachMichael Cheika and many eyes will be on powerful fullback Isreal Folau, who is expected to make his competitive debut in rugby union.
John Kirwan will also be in charge of his first Super Rugby match as Auckland Blues coach and he has gone for experience for the trip to the resurgent Wellington Hurricanes on Saturday.
"They've come off a couple of rebuilding years and they're feeling like they're ready to explode," the former Italy coach said.
"So I put them as firm favourites and us as underdogs so we've got nothing to lose. We're going to go out there, express ourselves and enjoy it."