The Crusaders started their title defense in strong fashion, defeating the Chiefs by 22 points on Saturday.
The Crusaders defense of their Super Rugby title starts in Christchurch with a tough tussle against the Chiefs. Will the Crusaders continue their winning habits or will the Chiefs win in the opening round at AMI Stadium as they did in the corresponding fixture two years ago? Join The Roar for live scores and coverage from 5:35pm (AEDT).
The Crusaders pre-season form was far from convincing. Eliminated in the semi-finals at the Brisbane 10s the reigning champions were then beaten 42-26 by the Highlanders in Waimumu last week.
Is this cause for panic? Not likely in February. There are just two changes from the side that lost their final pre-season match.
Luke Romano joins the starting line-up, and will appear in his 100th match for the Crusaders, while Scott Barrett will provide locking cover on the bench.
Led by captain Sam Whitelock and vice-captains Matt Todd and Ryan Crotty, the team will include nine All Blacks with 281 Test caps among them.
Jack Goodhue, George Bridge and David Havili all had breakout seasons last year and will look to hit the ground running in 2018.
Richie Mo’unga has a chance to stake a claim as backup All Blacks first-five to Beauden Barrett. Mo’unga had an outstanding 2017 and will be keen to outshine Damian McKenzie who will be vying for the same spot.
Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond are two servicable halfbacks and will share regular time this season.
Historically the Chiefs field an abrasive and accomplished pack, and up front five All Blacks have been named to start. Prop Kane Hames isn’t one of them though falling ill early in the week.
However his replacement Aidan Ross is very promising and stood up stoically to the might of the British and Irish Lions for the Barbarians last year.
Brad Weber and Damian McKenzie are a fast, young and potentially thrilling 9/10 combination. Weber is back after missing most of 2017 injured while McKenzie moves into his high school position.
With good ball this pair could cause chaos. McKenzie moving into first-five is one of the seasons most exciting prospects.
Charlie Ngatai at fullback provides a strong kicking option of both feet which could be vital if it becomes a territory scrap
There are three players on the bench awaiting a first Chiefs cap, in Taranaki trio Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Sean Wainui and Angus Ta’avo, with the latter two not part of the original squad, before then having taken part pre-season.
It will be a torrid and exciting affair, but the Crusaders didn’t lose at home last season and are favourites to edge this contest.