Both Chiefs and Crusaders crave first-up win
There is no Dan Carter or Kieran Read but tonight's Super Rugby opener in New Zealand still has all the makings of a blockbuster.
The Richie McCaw led Crusaders host back to back champions, the Chiefs, a side notable for the return at fullback of Mils Muliaina from Japan and the captaincy armband now with Aaron Cruden.
The two champion franchises have met half a dozen times in the last two seasons, of which the Chiefs have won four, including two semifinals, and lost two. Tonight will be just as competitive.
"It's a big day for both clubs," said Chiefs coach Dave Rennie.
"They [Crusaders] are in pretty good form and certainly seem a bit better oiled at this time of year than they have been in the previous two."
Rennie said those who were part of the 43-15 massacre in favour of the Crusaders in Christchurch last July were still hurting from the experience.
"We talk about what we want to achieve with this group in 2014, but for those of us who were involved [last year] we're still very grumpy about it.
"In the end we got towelled up and it's all around attitude.
"You saw three weeks later [in the semifinal] we were a different beast so we've got to make sure we get our head right going into this game and there is certainly a fair bit of emotion around it and we expect the boys to front."
While it was only round one the Chiefs are aiming to be at their best to pick up an all-important conference road win.
"So there's challenges around that but we've got a pretty determined bunch and regardless of the injuries people are talking about and the players we are missing we'll take down a good squad, a side that's good enough to win if we get it right.
"Getting points early is important, especially against the other New Zealand sides because you not only score some yourself but you deny them, so those derbies are massive for us."
Some tough calls have been made by both coaches, Rennie for the Chiefs, and Todd Blackadder for the Crusaders.
The Chiefs have opted for Augustine Pulu at halfback ahead of All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
Rennie said Pulu's pre-season form was too good to overlook.
Blackadder heaved a grenade into the works this week when he preferred Tim Perry to start ahead of 24 test veteran Wyatt Crockett at loosehead prop.
Likewise, Blackadder said he was rewarding pre-season form in selecting Perry.
Ashburton-born Perry played seven times for the Blues last year and is the son of Grant Perry, who played one match for the All Blacks against Fiji in 1980.
Perry has a job on his hands in the set pieces tonight, with hefty tighthead Ben Tameifuna at times proving an agitator against the Crusaders in the past.
Rather than dwell too long on last year's 20-19 semifinal loss to the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium, the Crusaders may also reflect what they did well in their 43-15 win over the eventual champions in Christchurch three weeks earlier.
The major difference is that Carter is on his sabbatical.
If Perry and his pack prevent the Chiefs' forwards disrupting the ball to halfback Andy Ellis around the breakdowns, playmaker Tyler Bleyendaal has every reason to make a confident, error-free start and that might be enough for the Crusaders to get home narrowly.
Crusaders: Israel Dagg, Johnny McNicholl, Rey Lee-Lo, Ryan Crotty, Nafi Tuitavake, Tyler Bleyendaal, Andy Ellis, Luke Whitelock, Richie McCaw (c), George Whitelock, Dominic Bird, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Tim Perry. Reserves: Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Nepo Laulala, Luke Romano, Matt Todd, Willi Heinz, Tom Taylor, Rob Thompson.
Chiefs: Mils Muliaina, Tim Nanai-Williams, Robbie Fruean, Charlie Ngatai, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden (c), Augustine Pulu, Kane Thompson, Tevita Koloamatangi, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Michael Fitzgerald, Ben Tameifuna, Rhys Marshall, Jamie Mackintosh. Reserves: Nathan Harris, Pauliasi Manu, Ben Afeaki, Matt Symons, Nick Crosswell, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Andrew Horrell, James Lowe.