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NZ Teams Battling First Round Jinxes

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
NZ Teams Battling First Round Jinxes

Wellington, Feb 11 NZPA - Summer's over, at least for New Zealand's Super 14 rugby sides who must cast traditional early February woes to one side in the opening round of matches this weekend.

Only the Blues historically start well in Super rugby, while the other four franchises often struggle in week one.

With two derby fixtures on show -- the Blues host the Hurricanes to launch the tournament in Albany tomorrow and the Crusaders are home to the Highlanders on Saturday night -- two New Zealand wins are in the offing.

Relying on the Chiefs to make it three against the Sharks in Durban on Sunday morning (NZT) may be a stretch.

The Chiefs have been first-round losers in each of the last five seasons, the 2009 finalists famous for sliding out of early contention before launching audacious late playoff bids.

Nearly as bad of late have been the Highlanders, who have won one of their last five openers while even the Crusaders boast just three wins from the last seven first-round fixtures.

But the worst historical performers are the Hurricanes, with only four opening wins to their name in 14 seasons, including just two in the last nine.

The Blues are one side with first-day form -- six wins to kick-start to their last eight campaigns -- yet they are underdogs tomorrow.

The clash features arguably the two most exciting backlines in the competition and with referees promising to help free up tackle ball quickly, the tournament opener could be corker.

The Hurricanes will run a more settled lineup onto North Harbour Stadium.

Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper has decided rising first five-eighth Aaron Cruden isn't yet ready for this stage, inserting Willie Ripia between Piri Weepu and an outside back division heaving with threats.

Opposite them, the jewel in the Blues' attacking crown is Isaia Toeava, a contender for player of the tournament last year such was his constant menace.

The Blues must quickly shake off any angst at losing All Blacks lock Ali Williams to pre-season injury and try to take a grip on proceedings up front through the likes of veteran front-rowers Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu.

The seven-time champion Crusaders are obvious favourites to win their southern derby but are aware the Highlanders have won their last two meetings -- including the deadly dull 6-0 triumph at Carisbrook last year.

There is an air of vulnerability about Todd Blackadder's men, with captain Richie McCaw on a three-game sabbatical while hardened tight five men such as Brad Thorn, Chris Jack and Wyatt Crockett aren't starting.

Daniel Carter will be pivotal to their performance while plenty of scrutiny will fall on transplanted Wellingtonian Robert Fruean at centre, the youngster packing oodles of ability but never tested at this level.

Canterbury players James Paterson and Nasi Manu will make their Highlanders debuts on the wing and No 8 respectively in an otherwise predictable side.

All Blacks Jimmy Cowan, Adam Thomson and Tom Donnelly are there but exciting Southland playmaker Robbie Robinson hasn't made the 22, with Matt Berquist preferred at No 10,

The Chiefs are up against it, facing a Sharks side who have only lost at home to a New Zealand team once since 2005.

Without resting fullback/captain Mils Muliaina and winger Lelia Masaga, the Chiefs may lack a little outside zip but, as they proved last year, they now stack depth and quality in most positions.

Mercurial No 8 Sione Lauaki will need to bust a tight Sharks advantage line while Stephen Donald and Mike Delany will pull the playmaking strings out wide as Durban hosts the only "international" match of week one.

In South Africa, the defending champion Bulls cross the highveld to face last year's wooden spooners, the Cheetahs, while a confident Stormers meet Carlos Spencer's Lions in Johannesburg.

In Australia, the Queensland Reds and Western Force are home to more fancied rivals.

It remains to be seen whether a niggle will keep ACT Brumbies first five-eighth Matt Giteau out of Friday's grudge match against a Force team he left under a cloud last year.

New South Wales Waratahs No 10 Berrick Barnes is a confirmed starter, however, against his old Reds team in Brisbane on Saturday -- another match that should carry ample spice.

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