WELLINGTON, February 15 – The words "World Cup" are stamped on page one of every New Zealand Super 15 handbook with the series overshadowed by All Blacks' coach Graham Henry charged with producing a world champion side.
Player availability and highly-combative clashes when potential All Blacks are pitted against each other under the local derby flavour of the new Super format will inevitably dictate the fortunes of the New Zealand franchises.
The Canterbury Crusaders again start the Super series as the team with the best credentials, while the Wellington Hurricanes, Waikato Chiefs and Auckland Blues have the players to compete but a history that says they won’t.
But overriding their interests will be those of Henry and his World Cup masterplan as New Zealand seek to win rugby’s showpiece trophy for the first time since they won the inaugural tournament 24 years ago.
Four years back, Henry controversially pulled his leading All Blacks out of the first half of the then Super 14 series and though he does not intend being as extreme this time he does have a huge say on when his stars will appear.
"Our biggest challenge is that they’ve got to be reasonably sharp mentally coming into the World Cup and the Tri Nations prior," Henry said following a meeting with the five Super 15 coaches.
"If they’re tired, it’s going to be very difficult. It’s keeping them fresh; it’s keeping on communicating with them and the Super 15 coaches to see how we can do that."
This is tough on the non All Blacks for whom the Super 15 trophy is their holy grail.
In the Crusaders’ camp this means at times they will be without some of their galaxy of stars, who include Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Brad Thorn, Kieran Read, Owen and Ben Franks, Sam Whitelock and now Sonny Bill Williams.
It is expected the All Blacks will at least be spelled around bye weekends to give them a minimum of two two-week breaks during the competition.
Henry has also hinted that his blueprint for the World Cup will have a bearing on the style of rugby produced by the Super 15 sides, saying he will work with the coaches "to give them constant feedback on the way they’re playing and how we think they can improve their game."
Then there is the injury toll as players eye a World Cup jersey, with a crucial vacancy to be Carter’s back up at number 10.
Of the leading contenders, Colin Slade broke his jaw in the Otago Highlanders’ pre-season game against the Blues, while Blues pivot Luke McAlister was knocked out playing the Chiefs, home of Carter’s incumbent backup Stephen Donald.
The most anticipated clash will come when the Crusaders play the Hurricanes, which lines Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean up against Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
All five squads have at least one past or present All Black wing fighting for a limited number of spots, and there is a similar battle among the locks where Ali Williams (Blues) returns after missing most of the past two years to challenge Thorn, Whitelock, Anthony Boric (Blues), Jason Eaton (Hurricanes) and Tom Donnelly (Highlanders).
Donnelly will miss the start of the season with a shoulder injury as will McCaw (foot) and Crusaders wing Zac Guildford (hamstring).
All Blacks captain McCaw was already scheduled to be rested for the first two weeks but will not now be available until round seven.
His injury will allow the Crusaders to trial two of the leading contenders to be his understudy, George Whitelock and Matt Todd.
Of the packed group behind the Crusaders most interest will be on the Hurricanes, who historically have always stumbled when winning mattered most.
The side, with 13 past and present All Blacks, is now coached by Mark Hammett, who served his apprenticeship under Robbie Deans and then Todd Blackadder at the Crusaders and has arrived in Wellington laden with Canterbury intellectual property.