The Crusaders hope a big hit-out against the Waratahs will put them on a course for recapturing the side's Super Rugby glory of seasons past, test No 8 Kieran Read said.
The seven-time champions, who last won a title in 2008 but were finalists or semi-finalists in every season since, are bringing their returning All Blacks to Sydney after two trial match losses to the Hurricanes and Highlanders in recent weeks.
Read said the Crusaders wanted to top the New Zealand conference to give themselves the best shot at their eighth Super Rugby title.
''It's going to be a really tough conference for us this year but certainly our expectation is that we'll win it,'' he said.
''It's no secret the easiest path to winning the competition is winning your conference. It's not going to be easy - there are obviously quality sides right across the country - but certainly we'll be looking to start well when the season kicks off and try to win those conference battles because it's crucial come the end of the season.''
Alongside Read, a 45-test veteran often touted as the best No 8 in the world today, All Blacks Dan Carter and Sam Whitelock will start against the Waratahs on Thursday.
Read's presence sets up a mouth-watering battle for dominance up front with Wallabies hard man Wycliff Palu declaring himself fit, fresh and ready to plough through opposition numbers.
''I was able to do pretty much all of the pre-season and wasn't dragged out of sessions because of rehab or anything like that,'' Palu said.
''It's been good to be part of the boys and do everything so I'm mentally refreshed and looking forward to it.''
Despite the hype surrounding new signing Israel Folau, Waratahs coach Michael Cheika said he was relying on the pack to give NSW the edge over the visitors.
''Rugby games are pretty much decided up front anyway,'' he said.
''We can often talk about the back three battle ... but you've got to go forward first and if we can go forward first we'll earn the right to play a bit wider in attack and hopefully put them under pressure.''
Cheika said Read was often in the background when teammate Richie McCaw was playing.
''He was almost the foil to McCaw, McCaw's the bigger man at the front from a captaincy point of view but Read's like the general running in there behind,'' he said.
''One of the great things about him that I've seen is his improvement as a player from when he first came on the scene to where he his now. We're going to have to work hard to put him in his place, otherwise he can run riot.''
Palu and flanker Michael Hooper will be keys to that plan. Palu, who finally found some momentum on the Wallabies' spring tour last year, said he was hoping for an injury-free run this season.
''We have a very good team and if I'm able to do my job in it then hopefully that will work well for us,'' Palu said.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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