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Chiefs meet Crusaders: title claimants to be tested in Super Rugby's 1st full round

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - The Chiefs will launch their defence of back-to-back Super Rugby titles under a heavy burden of injuries when they face the seven-time champion Crusaders on Friday in the tournament's first full round.

The Hamilton-based side will leave 10 first-string players at home when they travel to Christchurch for the opening match of the New Zealand conference. The game will test the strength of their bid for a third straight title and of the Crusaders' attempt to win their first since 2008.

This weekend's round — the first to involve all three conferences — is only the first step in a tournament which stretches from February to August. However, with a series of derby matchups, it may offer some insight into the potential of the leading teams in each geographical conference.

The Chiefs and Crusaders remain the leading contenders from New Zealand; the ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds, Australia's top sides last year, face each other in a testing opening match, and in South Africa the Stormers will try to spell out their title credentials against the Lions.

Other teams in each region may have improved through careful recruitment and with focused preparation, and that also will be tested when all play for the first time this regular season. But in New Zealand the Chiefs and Crusaders, Australia's Reds and Brumbies, and South African sides the Stormers and Sharks have been marked as early candidates for championships success.

No match in the opening round is likely to approach the intensity of the clash between the Chiefs and Crusaders, as each tries to set their season in motion with a win. If they wanted, those teams could deploy more than 15 All Blacks and simple pride dictates neither will treat the match lightly.

"It's a tough job first up, travelling to Christchurch, but it's a good opportunity for our boys to get an early measure of where we're at," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said.

All Blacks flanker Sam Cane is the latest of the Chiefs many early-season casualties which also included hookers Hika Elliot and Mo Schwalger, midfielders Tom Marshall and Bundee Aki, fullback Robbie Robinson and flyhalf Gareth Anscombe.

The Crusaders are much less disadvantaged and will field a side of considerable strength, although All Blacks flyhalf Dan Carter is on sabbatical and No. 8 Kieran Read will not play at least until the second round.

"They got their All Blacks in a lot earlier, so I think they're a little more organized and oiled for this time of year," Rennie said. "If you go on paper, they're the best side in the comp."

The Chiefs are still formidable, despite injuries, and their lineup on Friday will include former All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina, who will play his first major match in New Zealand since the 2011 World Cup final.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw will lead the Crusaders in a rare early-season appearance.

"It comes down to leadership with Kieran Read not being available and we just wanted our best players in their best positions," coach Todd Blackadder said. "Richie is a guy that can play six or eight but he's probably the world's best seven so we wanted him in his natural role."

In Australia, Wallabies flyhalf Quade Cooper has declared himself fit to take the field for the Reds against the Brumbies. Cooper was injured in a heavy tackle during his team's final pre-season match last weekend.

"I feel pretty good," Cooper said. "I am quite grateful to be up and about.

"Medically I have got the all clear. It is up to me and I am 100 per cent."

The Stormers have suffered the loss of a number of key players. Springboks Bryan Habana, Gerhard van den Heever, Dewaldt Duvenage, Andries Bekker and Joe Pietersen have all joined overseas clubs while Cheslin Kolbe and Springbok centre Juan de Jongh are among a group of injured players.

Coach Allister Coetzee is still happy with his team's preparation.

"All in all, I'm really happy and satisfied," Coetzee said. "We're in a better position than we were at this point last year.

"I would say the squads are a lot stronger all round this year. There is also far greater depth although the teams have depth shortfall in a few positions," he added. "The South African teams will be far more competitive this season."

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