By Ian Ransom
(Reuters) - The Canterbury Crusaders are expected to set the pace in the second edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa as New Zealand's domestic competition tinkers with rule changes and braces for COVID-19-related disruptions.
The Crusaders wrapped up last year's inaugural tournament with a game to spare, handing coach Scott Robertson a fourth successive title after a hat-trick of championships in the broader Super Rugby competition.
Featuring an All Blacks-laden pack, the Crusaders may again prove the benchmark even with their depth to be tested after season-ending injuries to centre Braydon Ennor and hooker Andrew Makalio.
Last year's tournament, which filled the breach after Super Rugby was abandoned due to the pandemic, was a hit with fans and broadcasters, with big crowds watching tight matches.
Adding to red card replacements and the "golden point" rule introduced last year, this year's edition will feature goal-line drop-outs and captains referrals in innovations borrowed from Australia's National Rugby League competition.
Goal-line drop-outs, introduced in Australia's domestic Super Rugby AU competition last year, replace the conventional 22m drop-out after an attacking player is held up or knocks the ball on in the in-goal area.
The goal-line drop-outs are also awarded when an attacking kick is grounded by the defending team in their in-goal area.
The rule is intended to speed the game up by encouraging teams to counter-attack.
The captains referrals give each team's captain one opportunity per match to ask the referee to have the Television Match Official (TMO) check for an infringement in the leadup to a try, or to review foul play.
If the referring captain is correct, the team retains the referral, but if the referee's original decision stands or the TMO footage is not "clear and obvious", the team loses it.
The pandemic situation will be closely watched and may throw up scheduling challenges, though New Zealand has all but eradicated COVID-19.
A snap three-day lockdown in Auckland last week forced the Auckland Blues to cancel a pre-season fixture against the Crusaders at Eden Park.
The Blues will hope to challenge the Crusaders' dominance after finishing second last year but they will have to do so without All Blacks playmaker Beauden Barrett, who is now playing in Japan.
The Wellington Hurricanes, captained by Ardie Savea, are another team with a big hole to fill in the absence of departed halfback TJ Perenara, as they look to improve on their third placing in 2020.
Fourth last year, the Otago Highlanders will hope for improvement under new management, with Tony Brown promoted to head coach after Aaron Mauger was pushed out following an internal review last year.
The Highlanders open the season against the Crusaders at home on Friday, with the Hurricanes to host the Blues.
The Waikato Chiefs, who failed to win a game last year under Warren Gatland, have an opening round bye before they host the Highlanders at home on March 5.
With Gatland away to coach the British and Irish Lions, interim coach Clayton McMillan is charged with turning the twice Super Rugby champions around.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)