The Crusaders are primed for the opening match of the 2012 Super rugby competition against the Blues in Auckland on Friday night, according to stand-in captain Kieran Read.
Read, who will lead the team until the return of All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw, believed the team was physically stronger this year after undergoing a rigorous pre-season training programme prepared by new trainer, Carl Jennings.
"He's been great for us with fresh ideas and definitely the boys are feeling really fit. I guess when you have your first hit-outs you are always a bit off the pace in the first games," Read said at the Crusaders training on Monday.
"I think we are a lot stronger this year and I guess that lends itself to being a bit more physical around the park. We are in a really good space. The group is very knowledgeable about what we want to achieve as a team and our game plan is really suiting that."
The Crusaders, as with the Blues, accounted for the same three teams in their pre-season matches – the Highlanders, the Hurricanes, and the Melbourne Rebels.
"Pre-season games can be taken with a grain of salt as far as results go. The real key issue for us is to make sure we can transfer that [early success] to pressure situations which this weekend obviously is."
After missing the early part of the All Blacks World Cup schedule through an ankle injury, Read returned for the last four matches and the robust No. 8 played a big helping hand in New Zealand's success. He is raring to go after an extended break.
"The body is feeling great after a good break and a couple of good hit-outs so far. The Blues are a good challenge for us - we've played them a couple of times first up in the last few years and they are always an exciting challenge."
Asked if the Crusaders were set to go one better after losing the final to the Reds last year, Read stopped short of confidently predicting an eighth Super title.
"We expect to be there at the end of the season but by no means does it just happen. We've been working hard but not until you get on to the track in these big games do you really realise how you are going to go.
"We start with three away games and, as was shown last year, it is important to win early and get some momentum into the season because once you start chasing games it can be quite tough."