Crusaders kick of Super Rugby title defense against Chiefs

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Christchurch-based Crusaders open the defense of their Super Rugby title on Saturday in a tough New Zealand derby against the Chiefs as the first full round of the season tests the effectiveness of reforms forced on the tournament in the past six months.

After last weekend's low-key start in which only two matches were played among teams from the South Africa conference, a full round of matches will see the first inter-conference clashes punctuate the derbies which will become more common under this season's 15-team, three-conference format.

Inevitably, there will be close scrutiny early in the season of the performances of Australian teams as they begin a new era with four rather than five Super Rugby franchises. The hope is that the rancorous decision to close down the Perth-based Western Force will lead to a redistribution of talent among the remaining teams which will help address the lack of depth which has often been an issue in Australia.

The Melbourne Rebels appear to have benefited more than any other team from the removal of the Force. They have a new head coach, South African Dave Wessels, who has joined them from the Force and brought with him a contingent of former Force players, including Wallabies lock Adam Coleman, who is the Rebels' new captain.

The Rebels open Friday against the Queensland Reds, who are themselves transformed by the arrival of a new head coach, the former All Blacks lock and Australian rugby league representative Brad Thorn.

Wessels and Coleman have a big task ahead of them to revive the Rebels, who finished last in the 2017 competition with only one win from 15 games.

"There's a huge amount of work to be done," Wessels said. "(The Rebels) are a start up, it's a new organization. We're trying to figure stuff out...who we are, what do we stand for, how do we want to play, what's our brand on-field and off-field."

Coleman said he was also excited to be part of a maturing team culture. The recruitment of players such as Wallabies scrumhalf Will Genia, who will turn out on Friday against the Reds for whom he played most of his Super Rugby, had added strength and depth across the squad.

"This is probably the team that I've been a part of that has got the most depth," Coleman said. "Every training you look at the sideline and there are just so many good players just looking to get a go. It's really healthy for our team having that competition."

It remains to be seen whether the depth within the Rebels and the Reds, the New South Wales Waratahs and ACT Brumbies is as great as it needs to be to negotiate a long regular season in which injuries inevitably hit hard. The Australian teams may still struggle to compete against teams like the Crusaders, who can call on as many as 18 players with All Blacks experience.

Saturday's match between the Crusaders and Chiefs features an intriguing contest between flyhalves Richie Mo'unga for the Crusaders and Damian McKenzie for the Chiefs, who are both candidates to be the All Blacks flyhalf backup behind Beauden Barrett. The departure of Aaron Cruden and impending departure of Lima Sopoaga has created a flyhalf vacancy in the All Blacks squad.

McKenzie was the All Blacks' fullback in the latter part of last season but is seen to have a future at No. 10.

"It's been a while since I have played 10 so I guess there will be nerves, but it's about embracing the pressure," he said.

Barrett will start from the bench when the Wellington-based Hurricanes play the Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday. He needs two points to become the fourth player in history to score 1,000 Super Rugby points.

Elsewhere, the Highlanders host the Blues at Dunedin on Friday in another New Zealand derby. On Saturday, Japan's Sunwolves play the Brumbies in Tokyo, New South Wales hosts the Stormers in Sydney and the Lions play Argentina's Jaguares in Johannesburg. The Durban, South Africa-based Sharks have a weekend bye.

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