2023 Crusaders vs Chiefs

Super Rugby Pacific: Crusaders Kick Off Title Defense Against Chiefs

Super Rugby Pacific: Crusaders Kick Off Title Defense Against Chiefs

Super Rugby Pacific has returned. It's the home league of the top clubs from New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Feb 21, 2023 by Briar Napier
Super Rugby Pacific: Crusaders Kick Off Title Defense Against Chiefs

The South Pacific’s top annual club rugby competition has returned.

Super Rugby Pacific – the home league of the top clubs from New Zealand, Australia and nearby Pacific Islands – returns this week, as the 15-round gauntlet, plus knockout rounds leading to a final, features some of the best and brightest playing rugby anywhere in the world.

With the club scene amid a Rugby World Cup year, those not solidified to have slots in their national teams have a major opportunity to show out against Super Rugby competition over the coming months and impress enough to warrant selection. 

But, as for the club race, it’s one club’s to lose – and that team isn’t expected to fall off anytime soon.

Wildly considered to be one of, if not the outright best, club rugby leagues in the world, Super Rugby Pacific is a weekly onslaught that demands the best out of every player. 

The tension truly never stops, and when Round 1 gets going later this week, the fight to be the best will begin immediately and in full force.

Want a primer on which matches to watch as the Super Rugby Pacific season gets under way? 

Here’s a peek at some of the top fixtures of Round 1, with the competition being streamed live on FloRugby.

NOTE: All start times are listed in Eastern Time and are subject to change.

Crusaders Vs. Chiefs

The most successful club in Super Rugby history with 11 championships, the Crusaders’ run of four straight league titles (not counting the regional competitions that were played in place of the league for the pandemic-affected 2020 and 2021 seasons) officially made coach Scott Robertson’s side the most dominant dynasty.

The competition began in 1996, and the Crusaders’ current run has bested their own record of three consecutive crowns from 1998-2000. 

Loaded with international stars near-certain to appear on the World Cup stage later this year with the New Zealand national team.

The list includes captain Scott Barrett, fly-half Richie Mo’unga and wings/backs Will Jordan and Sevu Reece, and it would be rather silly not to call the Crusaders the favorites to capture what would be an unprecedented fifth straight first-place trophy, as essentially all of the team’s heavy hitters from 2022 return.

Still, they aren’t invincible. 

The Christchurch club may have only lost three times across the regular season and playoffs a season ago, but one of those defeats came at the hands of its Round 1 opponent, the Chiefs, who finished third in 2022 for their best regular season since winning the competition outright in 2013, 

The Chiefs will look to repeat what they did in Round 4 of last season when they won at the Orangetheory Stadium on the back of a Shaun Stevenson double. He returns to the fray for this year, too. 

Co-captains, club centurions and All Black mainstays Sam Cane and Brad Weber make up about as steady of a veteran duo as there can be, and the Chiefs will need it, as they’ll be tasked with beating the league’s juggernaut on its home turf in a playoff semifinal rematch.

Moana Pasifika Vs. Fijian Drua

Super Rugby’s two clubs representing the rugby-mad Pacific islands, both Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua can be excused a bit for having lackluster debut seasons in 2022, as they made up the last two spots of the league table. 

On top of all the normal headaches of being expansion clubs navigating a first season, the Drua only played twice in Fiji, due to COVID-19 restrictions, while Moana Pasifika was affected by the virus arguably more than any other club, seeing multiple matches postponed and shuffled around due to outbreaks, either within their own ranks or on opposing teams. 

With the pandemic’s influence on the rugby (hopefully) having mostly subsided, that means the island rivals can focus entirely on growing into Super Rugby and finding their places in 2023 – which starts by immediately playing each other. 

Squaring off at the Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland, both squads have plenty of returners from the 2022 season, but the new additions on each touchline likely will be what makes either (or both) teams move up the standings this season. 

For Moana Pasifika, coach Aaron Mauger has five new names, including first five-eighth and Samoa international D’Angelo Leulia and 23-year-old lock Miracle Fai’ilagi, another Samoan, who was scouted and signed following a promising World Rugby Pacific Combine last year in Fiji. 

As for the Drua, Olympic gold medal-winning Fiji sevens star Meli Derenalagi has been named captain at just 24 years old, following the departure of the armband’s former holder, Nemani Nagusa.

Senior international winger Eroni Sau – nicknamed “The Sledgehammer” for his punishing style in a club career that has included stops in France and Scotland – signed on during the offseason for a return to the Drua, after being part of the team’s run in Australia’s National Provincial Championship in 2018.

Blues Vs. Highlanders

No club got closer to ending the Crusaders’ run of Super Rugby dominance than the Blues, who topped the regular-season table and carried that momentum all the way to the final, where they were dispatched by the league’s longstanding powerhouse. 

With a powerful setup last season that scored the most points (472) of any Super Rugby team across the 15 rounds heading into the playoffs, it meant coach Leon MacDonald opted to keep things mostly the same for 2023, as there are only three new players for 2023. 

Reigning top scorer Stephen Perofeta, whose performances in Super Rugby propelled him to his first All Blacks cap last August, once again should be one of the top pieces in a lethal Blues attack that also features former World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett, the talented brothers Akira and Rieko Ioane and winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who will look to build off of a strong first season for the Auckland-based club, after he switched over from rugby league prior to the 2022 campaign. 

They’ll face a Highlanders side that’s had a ton of shaking up over the past few months.

Former coach Tony Brown took an assistant job with the Japanese national team, leaving past Highlanders player Clarke Dermody as the new man leading the touchline, after being hired in June to a three-year deal. 

Club legend Aaron Smith, the team’s all-time leader in caps, likely will be playing his last season in New Zealand, as the All Black centurion will play in Japan starting in 2024 (and possibly with Barrett, too), with the back seeking a strong start to his swan-song season. 

Smith will be joined on the squad by new captain Billy Harmon, who won the Bunnings NPC with Canterbury last year, and former Chiefs winger Jonah Lowe, who transferred in, among other new names.