All Blacks trials begin from the outset of Super Rugby Pacific

Two years into the global pandemic tournament organisers can't claim to be blindsided but Super Rugby Pacific has copped its share of jarring shoulder charges before a ball is kicked in the inaugural season.

First there was the completely remodelled draw. Then fallout from last year's elongated rugby calendar, coupled with New Zealand's restrictive Covid-19 landscape, conspired to deliver a compressed three-and-a-half week preseason - a tight timeframe that hinders new entrants Moana Pasifika more than anyone.

With the Omicron variant only now spreading throughout New Zealand, and projected to spike in the coming weeks, NZ Rugby adopted the unprecedented step of moving their six teams to a Queenstown hub in the hope of insulating the competition from costly cancelled games.

The move wasn't quick enough for Moana Pasifika, though. Seven players tested positive after arriving in Queenstown, forcing their competition-opening match against the Blues to be postponed.

Many of this season's main attractions - Blues duo Caleb Clarke and former Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck - went seven months without game-time due to Auckland's four-month lockdown that halted their side's domestic season.

Despite those setbacks and ongoing uncertainty surrounding Super Rugby Pacific's trans-Tasman component, scheduled to start from Apr. 22 in Melbourne, there is no shortage of firepower populating the New Zealand teams.

Set against the backdrop of successive defeats to Ireland and France to finish their underwhelming end of year tour, the All Blacks should be highly motivated to shake off frustrations with their respective teams.

The vast majority of All Blacks will begin the opening week on restrictive minutes after re-joining their squads earlier this month, having only emerged from hotel quarantine in mid-December.

Emerging and fringe prospects will keep heat on Test incumbents. And with Ian Foster forced to trim his enlarged squad for the July series against Ireland, competition will be fierce during virtual All Blacks trials.

While everyone is tipping the Crusaders and Blues to lead the New Zealand charge, it would be foolish to write off the dark horse Chiefs.

With Sam Cane fully recovered from surgery last year; Brodie Retallick back to partner Tupou Vaa'i in the imposing second-row, loose forward Luke Jacobson and powerhouse hooker Samasoni Taukeiaho among the Chiefs pack, they should mix it with anyone.

Damian McKenzie's Japanese sabbatical robs the Chiefs of their dynamic attacking weapon but recruiting one Test All Blacks playmaker Josh Ioane from the Highlanders could prove a telling acquisition to slot in alongside Brad Weber, Quinn Tupaea and Anton Lienert-Brown.

Intrigue abounds, too, in the implications of coaching changes. Clayton McMillian, who guided the Chiefs out of their worst losing run to the Aotearoa final, retains the head coaching brief with Warren Gatland, following his 2-1 Lions series defeat in South Africa, shifting into a director of rugby role.

The Blues, on the back of last year's drought-breaking Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title, their first for 18 years, are intent on taking the next step in Leon MacDonald's fourth year at the helm.

Those hopes are significantly boosted by Joe Schmidt's analytical mind in the coaching ranks before he joins the All Blacks in August. So, too, does Beauden Barrett's return from Japan instantly improve the Blues' prospects - provided he overcomes the lingering concussion symptoms from the heavy knock he sustained against Ireland last November. Barrett will miss at least the opening week but the Blues are hopeful he will return not long after.

The Blues have lost captain Patrick Tuipulotu to his Japanese sabbatical but lured Crusaders veteran Luke Romano to step in. If their pack, featuring six All Blacks and hooker Ricky Riccitelli from the Hurricanes, can lay the desired platform Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Tuivasa-Sheck, Clarke and Zarn Sullivan will be lethal.

The Blues claimed the last title on offer yet favouritism sits comfortably with Scott Robertson's Crusaders as they seek a sixth championship under his astute guidance. They will, however, start the season without Richie Mo'unga and Ethan Blackadder for the first three rounds as the influential All Blacks duo savour extended rest.

Simon Hickey, who did not feature for the Hurricanes due to injury last year, or Fergus Burke will initially attempt to fill Mo'unga's void. Former Pumas captain Pablo Matera is the headline addition to the loose forwards - a powerful ball carrier, defender and lineout exponent who further bolsters the already stacked Crusaders pack.

TJ Perenara's homecoming, after a brief flirtation with the Roosters, to the Hurricanes after his Japanese sabbatical is timely. The Hurricanes missed their most capped veteran last season and his presence will alleviate leadership burden from Ardie Savea, Dane Coles and Jordie Barrett. Perenara will, however, miss the opening month after damaging his knee in training.

Losing Ngani Laumape to France is a body blow for Hurricanes. They need Peter Umaga-Jensen to regain his All Blacks form in the midfield, and for talented playmaker Ruben Love to fast find his feet at first-five.

Consistently competing up front remains their major challenge, with depth in the second-row thin and high-profile recruit Owen Franks sidelined for the first two months.

Defying the odds is woven into the fabric of the Highlanders. Few predicted they would usurp the Crusaders to contest last year's Trans-Tasman final against the Blues but the southerners have a knack of performing upsets - their dominant last round win against the Brumbies in Canberra case in point.

Tony Brown shot from the hip last year when he predicted his side would defeat all the Australia teams, and they made good on that prediction. This season the Highlanders will hope to tip over a few more Kiwi sides. That won't be easy - long term injuries to towering lock Pari Pari Parkinson and classy finisher Jona Nareki big losses.

The Highlanders do, however, welcome back future All Blacks halfback Folau Fakatava from his season-ending knee injury and midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen, a handful in his limited appearances last season.

As the Australian sides know, confronting the five established Kiwi teams is relentless. There is no let-up week to week, or within games.

Moana Pasifika already faced a daunting task year one but New Zealand's 100-cap limit on gatherings and the relocation to Queenstown, that denies them the chance to stage their first match at their adopted Mt Smart home, amplifies that challenge.

COVID running through their squad also quashed valuable game time with Moana Pasifika having to drop one preseason match. When cleared to start their debut campaign, Moana will do so after one warm up game; their 61-7 defeat to the Chiefs.

Vision of Wallabies centurion Sekope Kepu in tears as he accepted the captaincy tugged on the heart strings. No one can doubt this team's authenticity; the genuine bonds and unique pathways they are attempting to pave in embracing Pacific culture into the rugby realm.

On the field, though, patience and persistence will be needed in spades. Opposition does not come much tougher for a thrown together start-up team.