With less than 24 hours until the start of the Super Rugby season, we preview Friday's action with all three matches being derbies.
With less than 24 hours until the start of the 2012 Super Rugby season, we preview Friday's action with all three matches being local derbies.
Quite fittingly, the Blues and Crusaders kick-off proceedings at Auckland's Eden Park – the same venue that played host to the Rugby World Cup final.
We then cross over to the Australian capital where the revamped Brumbies will be looking to repeat their pre-season win over the Western Force.
The action continues in Pretoria when the Bulls and Sharks go head to head for what should be another brutal South African derby.
Blues v Crusaders
Eden Park, Auckland
The Blues and Crusaders get Super Rugby 2012 under way at Eden Park where the two Kiwi outfits will resume their long-standing rivarly in a repeat of last year's opening spectactle.
The three-time Super Rugby champs host the seven-time winners of the championship, with both sides aiming to kick-off their gruelling campaigns on a winning note.
There will be eighteen All Blacks on the Auckland pitch (10 for the Blues, eight for the Crusaders) with another three more on the respective team benches, including halfback Piri Weepu who misses out on a starting spot for his new team in blue.
The Crusaders have had the better of the Blues in recent years, having won four of the last five clashes, although the Blues prevailed in their outing at the same venue last year after coming from a 6-19 half-time deficit to stun their visitors 24-22.
It was the first win for the Blues over the Crusaders since 2007, and Pat Lam's troops will fancy their chances of repeating last year's heroics – only this time they'll want to maintain a solid lead throughout.
On paper, the Blues boast the stronger team of the two and it's no wonder they are the favourites – not only for this opening hit-out, but to finish the season top of the New Zealand Conference.
That might bode well for the Crusaders as last year's finalists won't feel any added pressure to deal with, even though they will desperatelly want to bring a three-year title drought to an end.
Both sides have few obvious weaknesses to exploit and to pick a winner is no easy feat. Previous encounters between these two heavy-weights are traditionally tight with no more than seven points separating the sides in those five matches from 2008.
Prediction: It's never easy for opposing teams at Eden Park, including the mighty Crusaders who will be missing some serious strike power in the form of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. Whilst we expect a tight tussle, our money is on the Blues… by six points!
Blues: 15 Isaia Toeava, 14 David Raikuna, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Benson Stanley, 11 Rudi Wulf, 10 Michael Hobbs, 9 Alby Mathewson; 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Daniel Braid, 6 Chris Lowrey, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Tom McCartney.
Replacements: 16 Pauliasi Manu, 17 Tevita Mailau, 18 Brad Mika, 19 Luke Braid, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Hadleigh Parkes, 22 Sherwin Stowers.
Crusaders: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Israel Dagg, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Tom Donnelly, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Quentin MacDonald, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willie Heinz, 21 Patrick Osborne, 22 Adam Whitelock.
Kick-off: 19:35 (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Western Force
Canberra Stadium, Canberra
A new-look Brumbies outfit open their Super Rugby season with a tricky Aussie derby when they host the Western Force in Canberra on Friday.
A few years ago, Brumbies fans would have circled this fixture as a relatively easy opener against the men from the West.
However, times have changed in recent years for Australia's most successful franchise, and the two-time Super Rugby champs are no longer the force they once were (pardon the pun!).
The Brumbies finished a disappointing 13th last season, and must now tackle the new season without 13 of last year's starting line-up who have left for greener pastures. World Cup-winning coach Jake White has taken over proceedings, but the former Bok coach faces an uphill battle to revitalise this beleaguered brand and bring them back to their glory days.
Indeed, Friday's clash is the beginning of a new era for the Brumbies with 15 new players and one of the most inexperienced squads in the competition. While the 2012 season won't be won or lost against the Force, a victory would set White's plans in motion and give the young group of players confidence as their season unfolds.
The Force have been tipped for the wooden spoon in the Australian Conference this season, and their 25-0 pre-season defeat to the Brumbies didn't help their cause. However, they would love nothing more than to prove their doubters wrong with a convincing win at Canberra Stadium.
In the reverse fixture last season the sides played to a 13-13 draw and after seven matches at all grounds they both have three victories.
Prediction: The Brumbies can use their unknown talent as a weapon, but we think the Force have much more firepower in their ranks to prevent the hosts opening the season with a morale-boosting win. Force by five!
Brumbies: 15 Robbie Coleman, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Jesse Mogg, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Ita Vaea, 6 Peter Kimlin, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Leon Power, 3 Dan Palmer, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: Anthony Hegerty, Ruaidhri Murphy, Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper, Ian Prior, Zack Holmes, Joe Tomane.
Western Force: 15 Alfie Mafi, 14 Nick Cummins, 13 Winston Stanley, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Napolioni Nalaga, 10 James Stannard, 9 Brett Sheehan, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 David Pocock (c), 6 Matt Hodgson, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Toby Lynn, 3 Salesi Ma'au, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: Elvis Taione, Kieran Longbottom, Phoenix Battye, Angus Cottrell, Justin Turner, Ben Seymour, Sam Wara.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Bulls v Sharks
Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
There will be no love lost when the Bulls and Sharks open their Super Rugby account in what is expected to be another fierce South African derby clash at Loftus Versfeld.
The last time these teams met, they were playing for a place in the play-offs with the Sharks taking the spoils and in the process ended the Bulls' title defence at home.
So revenge will be the menu for the hosts, but many key players have moved on since that heart-breaking defeat – Gurthro Steenkamp, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Dannie Rossouw, Fourie du Preez, Gary Botha and