This year’s Super Rugby Pacific campaign is set to get underway in less than a few weeks, and it all starts with a blockbuster between two fierce New Zealand rivals.
Reigning champions the Crusaders will begin their title defence against the Gallagher Chiefs in Christchurch on February 24th.
Both teams will be full of belief and confidence ahead of the new campaign, as they look to etch their names into Super Rugby immortality with a successful campaign in 2023.
The Highlanders will host the Blues the following day at Forsyth Barr Stadium, in what promises to be another unmissable New Zealand derby.
With this year’s Rugby World Cup in France nigh on the horizon, these derbies will simply mean more this year.
As test veteran Aaron Smith discussed, he’s eager to make his mark this season against players he’ll be competing with “to wear the black jersey.”
“Nothing beats the derbies,” Smith said on a video shared on the All Blacks YouTube page. “For a kiwi fan, and as a player, you watch them all.
“I think every time you play your mates, your good mates and obviously guys you’re trying to compete with to wear the black jersey as well, there’s more on the line.
“There’s individual battles, there’s spots up for grabs, and that’s what I love when the derby games roll up. It’s make or break and they’re definitely games that I earmark on the season.
“I want to do it now and (you) can’t beat those kind of games. It’s why you play rugby is to smash your mate, try to beat them, and see where you lie.
“Those games are always 80 minute games, you don’t see many blowouts in the derbies.
“I’m b***** excited about another round of derbies to be honest.”
Aaron Smith’s Highlanders will have a chance to redeem themselves against the Blues later this month.
After sneaking into the playoffs on points difference last season, the Landers were outclassed by the Blues 35-6 at Eden Park in the quarterfinals.
But their issues against New Zealand opposition goes back even further. The Highlanders failed to beat any of their four kiwi opponents last season.
While their problems didn’t quite stop there, as they won four matches across the season, they did record some big wins across the Tasman.
The Highlanders beat the Reds at Suncorp Stadium, and recorded an emphatic 51-point win over the Western Force in Perth.
But Smith is expecting some more thrilling matchups against Australia opposition this year.
“You’ve got the Australians as well and they’re coming, they’re coming,” he added.
“Playing the Reds over there is a really tough game. Playing in Canberra, I’ve only won there once or twice and I’ve only beaten the Reds once and that was last year.
“It’s an awesome comp.”
Smith is also expecting some tougher matches against the Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua, who both made their Super Rugby debuts last season.
“Having the Drua, that game as I’ve said before is the hardest environment to play (in).
“It’s going to be an interesting game.
“Moana Pasifika, the way they connect with where they’re from, their cultures, multicultural team, well coached.
“Coming into their second year, and I think even the Drua and Moana will be better for that.
“They have now got a whole preseason together again, able to attract more talent, so now we’ve got seven teams in the Pacific that are looking dangerous.”