Crusaders v Chiefs
Friday 24 February, 19:05 NZT
Drawing the short straw to front up against a Crusaders side looking for a seventh DHL Super Rugby Pacific title in 2023 is the challenge for the Chiefs when heading to Christchurch to kick off the competitive season.
But of all the New Zealand sides, the Chiefs do have the record of causing concern for the Crusaders, and the prospect is that such a blockbuster game will provide a stimulating start to a Rugby World Cup year.
Among many players who could influence the outcome, the Chiefs will offer Damian McKenzie, who is back in the colours to provide attacking impetus whether from first five-eighths or fullback. Irish prop John Ryan is another who will be watched with interest.
The return of two injured players who missed much of last season, midfield back Jack Goodhue and flanker Ethan Blackadder, will only add to the challenge opposing sides face throughout the campaign. Their return is consolidated by the longer-term return of halfback Willi Heinz from a European stint.
Last meeting: Crusaders 20 - 7 Chiefs, Orangetheory Stadium, June 22, 2022 (Semi final).
That will ensure their first-up game, at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday afternoon, against the Fijian Drua, is their chance to put their combinations and cohesion to good use in one of the more fascinating contests of the first weekend.
Last meeting: Drua 34 - 19 Moana, CommBankStadium, May 14, 2022 (Rd13).
Highlanders v Blues
Saturday 25 February, 19:05 NZT
Forsyth Barr Stadium
Because of the enclosed nature of Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin and the style of play the Blues have adopted under coach Leon MacDonald, the Saturday night contest against the Highlanders should be one of the tougher tests of lung capacity for both sides.
The home team includes England five-eighths Freddie Burns and Argentine wing Martin Bogado to complement their potent backline. Also returning from injury is halfback Folau Fakatava. Still, the big challenge will be upfront, where lock Josh Dickson’s 52 games for the side are 17 more than the remaining locks available combined.
The Blues’ settled squad, boosted by the return from Japan of lock Patrick Tuipulotu, is a rare advantage for last year’s beaten finalist. However, with Beauden Barrett again calling the shots from first five-eighths, the experience on call among their backs will be tested from the outset in Dunedin.
Last meeting: Blues 35 - 6 Highlanders, Eden Park, June 4, 2022 (Quarter final).
Reds v Hurricanes
Saturday 25 February, 21:35 NZT
Queensland Country Bank Stadium
No one knows better than the Hurricanes how difficult it is to win in Brisbane, but that is their challenge when meeting the Reds at Queensland Country Bank Stadium. Down on experience with TJ Perenara still not recovered from his Achilles tendon injury, and with Ruben Love suffering an injury, the task will be ahead of those who step up in their places.
The Hurricanes pack will know they have been in a contest against the Brad Thorn-inspired Reds, but their efforts that will go a long way towards increasing their chances of success.
Last meeting: Hurricanes 30 - 17 Reds, AAMI Park, May 14, 2022 (Rd10).