WELLINGTON, Feb 9 (Reuters) - New Zealand's World Cup defence looms large over a Super Rugby season which will serve as a domestic swansong for a gilded generation of All Blacks hoping to defend the Webb Ellis trophy in England.
All five New Zealand franchises have been asked to juggle their resources so the All Blacks are not overworked or worse, injured, and each international will miss at least two rounds.
Others, like number eight Kieran Read and hooker Keven Mealamu, have exercised clauses in their contracts that allow them an extended break from 2014 and will not return until at least the fourth round.
"We need to find the time to give them those two weeks off," Auckland Blues coach John Kirwan told Fairfax Media last month.
"That will be a challenge but our coaching staff will look at the season and particular games. It will put a huge emphasis on the whole squad."
The need to test the depths of Super Rugby squads will undoubtedly allow New Zealand's rugby-mad public to witness the start of a generational shift.
Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith have already said this year will be their last in New Zealand rugby, while Richie McCaw, Mealamu and prop Tony Woodcock look likely to retire after the World Cup.
The departure of several players who have been at the heart of All Blacks success for much of the last decade is likely to increase the pressure on Todd Blackadder to bring Canterbury Crusaders their eighth title.
The Crusaders came within a minute of winning their first title since 2008 with the 33-32 loss to the New South Wales Waratahs in last year's final and are again New Zealand's frontrunners for the title.
The return of code-hopping centre Sonny Bill Williams to the Waikato Chiefs is only part of a good off-season of recruitment for the 2012 and 2013 champions.
Barnstorming centre Seta Tamanivalu and former All Blacks winger Hosea Gear will add some line-breaking bulk to a small back division and they should improve on their fifth-placed finish last year.
With the return to Wellington of Nonu, the Hurricanes undoubtedly have the best backline in New Zealand and should be in playoff contention under new coach Chris Boyd.
Blues coach Kirwan is also under pressure to get results from his talent-laden squad, while the Otago Highlanders will be hard-pushed to repeat last year's sixth-placed finish. (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)