The South African conference got underway at the weekend but Super Rugby goes up a gear from Friday when play commences across Australia and New Zealand.
Here, we evaluate the Australian conference with the help of expert columnist Greg Growden.
Coach: Dan McKellar
Captains: Sam Carter/Christian Leali'ifano
Last year: The Brumbies topped the Australian conference for the second straight year, but with just six wins for the season it was hardly anything to crow about. Only two of those victories came against non-Australian opposition -- those being the lowly Kings and Jaguares -- while their home quarterfinal ended in a 35-16 loss to the Hurricanes. The Brumbies' attack, at times, appeared disjointed and lacked continuity with Kiwi Wharenui Hawera never really commanding the backline with any great authority. They also struggled to create line breaks and finished second-last for tackle busts. The forwards did a sound job, particularly at set-piece, but there was a spark missing from the Brumbies for much of 2017.
This year: A new coach, the return of David Pocock and Christian Leali'ifano, and a couple of other handy additions -- namely Isi Naisarani, Chance Peni and Lachlan McCaffrey -- will have the Brumbies bullish about their chances of again topping the Australian conference. Given last year's struggles on attack, there is an obvious need for a change in approach -- one that makes the most of the solid platform that will again likely be provided up front, particularly with the return of forwards guru Laurie Fisher. Leali'fiano should add some polish to the backs, and lighten the load on Hawera if the veteran takes the No.12 jersey. With five of their first six games against Australian conference opposition, the Brumbies can take a stranglehold on the division if they start the season strongly.
Fixtures:Sunwolves (a), Reds (a), Rebels (a), Sharks (h), Bye, Waratahs (h), Reds (h), Highlanders (a), Jaguares (h), Crusaders (h), Bye, Rebels (h), Lions (a), Bulls (a), Sunwolves (h), Hurricanes (h), Chiefs (a), Waratahs (a).
Greg Growden says: David Pocock's return is timely, as the Brumbies no longer have prominent performers Chris Alcock and Scott Fardy in their back-row. New coach Dan McKellar has a capable, settled group to work with, and they appear to be the best of the Australian contingent.
Greg Gowden's tip: First in conference.
Coach: Dave Wessels
Captain: Adam Coleman
Last year: They may have survived the Super Rugby scrapheap, but it was otherwise a disastrous season for the Rebels. The Melbourne franchise managed just one win amid an unprecedented run of injuries that forced them to sign many additional players on short-term deals just to ensure they could write 23 names in the matchday program. The Rebels were exposed badly in both attack and defence, finishing with the fewest tries and points scored in the competition while conceding 50 points or more on four occasions. Meanwhile, off the field, franchise owner Andrew Cox was trying to offload the club to the Victorian Rugby Union -- a sale that eventually went through for $1, the same price Cox had originally paid. The drama and uncertainty didn't stop there as coach Tony McGahan departed; Dave Wessels was later appointed despite a reported flirtation with Munster.
This year: With a swathe of new talent, including the pick of the now defunct Western Force's personnel, there hasn't been this sort of optimism around the Rebels since the days of Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor; though that might not be the most appropriate reference given how the wayward Wallabies duo's tenure eventually ended. Still, with the likes of Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty, Adam Coleman and Englishman Geoff Parling adding genuine Test quality to a squad that already had a smattering of rising talent, it is reasonable to think the Rebels should improve considerably on last year's one-win return. Wessels will need to settle on a No. 10, and that looks like being Jack Debreczeni, for Round 1 at least, with the coach suitably happy with the talented youngster's efforts in a trial against the Waratahs last Thursday.
Fixtures: Reds (h), Sunwolves (a), Brumbies (a), Waratahs (a), Sharks (h), Hurricanes (h), Bye, Jaguares (h), Bulls (a), Stormers (a), Crusaders (h), Brumbies (a), Bye, Sunwolves (h), Blues (a), Waratahs (h), Reds (a) Highlanders (a).
Greg Growden says: Sean McMahon heading to Japan is an enormous loss, but new coach Dave Wessels cannot complain about player stocks. He has brought with him countless Force players to mix in with numerous reasonable Rebels players. With the wise recruitment of England's Geoff Parling, they look a finals candidate.
Greg Gowden's tip: Second in conference.
Coach: Brad Thorn
Captain: Scott Higgintbotham
Last year: The Reds began the season with a last-gasp victory over the Sharks but there was little to be excited about from that point onwards as they registered just three more wins. While many of the Reds' attacking stats were far from dire, most falling mid table, they did finish bottom for total metres gained -- which suggested a lack of counter attack and a real ability to open up defences from long range. The emergence of locks Izack Rodda and Lukhan Tui, and winger Izaia Perese were positives, but it still wasn't enough to save coach Nick Stiles from the scrapheap.
This year: With Stiles given his marching orders late in 2017, All Blacks and Broncos NRL great Brad Thorn now finds himself in the Ballymore hot seat. He's already shaken things up, showing Quade Cooper the door and appointing veteran back-rower Scott Higginbotham as captain. As is the case with the Rebels and Brumbies, the Reds will be hoping a genuine No. 10 emerges -- and it may prove to be the well-travelled Jono Lance, who was a part of the Reds' title-winning team of 2011. Youngster Hamish Stewart, a player Thorn knows from his Queensland Country NRC stint, is another option while Samu Kerevi will provide thrust further out. The forward pack looks promising and can only benefit from Thorn's expertise, but it's hard to see the code-hopper enjoying too much success in his first year in charge.
Fixtures: Rebels (a), Brumbies (h), Bulls (h), Jaguares (a), Stormers (a), Bye, Brumbies (a), Waratahs (a), Chiefs (h), Lions (h), Bye, Sunwolves (a), Hurricanes (a), Highlanders (h), Waratahs (h), Blues (a), Rebels (h), Sunwolves (h).
Greg Growden says: Brad Thorn has endured Karmichael Hunt courtroom dramas and given Quade Cooper the cold shoulder. Thorn's tough love stance could ignite the Reds, but the side lacks depth, which should lead to another wayward season. With the impotent Sunwolves in the conference, at least the Reds won't be last.
Greg Growden's tip: Fourth in conference.
Coach: Daryl Gibson
Captain: Michael Hooper
Last year: A season that began with a scratchy win over the Force never really got any better as the Waratahs slumped to a 16th-placed finish -- rounded out with a 29-point defeat by that same franchise. Coach Daryl Gibson was under pressure throughout, seemingly answering questions about his job security while trying to find answers to his side's decline. The Waratahs' matches followed a familiar trend: A slow start would see them forever playing catch-up rugby, and the mini-revival that nearly always came only ever added a touch of respectability to the scoreline. Captain Michael Hooper was one of their few consistent performers, himself baffled by his side's inability to play from the opening whistle, while Israel Folau endured his quietest season since his switch from the AFL. A home loss to the Kings in front of just 10,555 fans, their lowest crowd in history, summed up the Waratahs' season from hell.
This year: Having survived the axe, Gibson has it all do to in the final year of his contract. Luckily, the Waratahs' outlook appears far brighter than it did this time last year, with key Wallabies Folau, Bernard Foley and Hooper all fit and refreshed. More importantly, they are joined by the returning Kurtley Beale. But there looks to be an issue up front, particularly at lock, where NSW are short on tight-five depth. The departures of Will Skelton and Dean Mumm may hurt more than many might think, putting huge pressure on Reds recruit Rob Simmons and former Brumbies second-rower Tom Staniforth. Gibson may yet look to move Ned Hanigan into the lock position, especially with the impressive Jack Dempsey soon due back from a serious hamstring injury. The opening three weeks could make or break the Waratahs' season, with a win over the Stormers in Round 1 seemingly critical if they are to perform on the road against the Sharks and Jaguares.
Fixtures: Stormers (h), Sharks (a), Jaguares (a), Rebels (h), Brumbies (a), Sunwolves(a), Reds (h), Lions (h), Blues (h), Crusaders (a), Highlanders (h), Chiefs (a), Reds (h), Rebels (a), Sunwolves (h), Brumbies (h).
Greg Growden says: They have the players and depth out wide to advance to the semifinals, but they need better direction from up top and several forwards to produce. Daryl Gibson needs to show this season he is a Super Rugby coach. That involves providing his players with a constructive and credible game plan.
Greg Growden's Tip: Third in conference.
Coach: Jamie Joseph
Captain: Willie Britz/Yutaka Nagare
Last year: The Sunwolves were always going to find their first few years in Super Rugby difficult, but there was at least some improvement from seasons one to two. While they again suffered a couple of huge defeats -- giving up 94 and 83 points to the Lions and Hurricanes respectively -- they did manage two wins, the second a shock 48-21 win over the Blues in scorching Tokyo heat. But there was no hiding from the fact the Sunwolves had a serious problem on defence, as the Japanese franchise missed 50 more tackles than the next worst defensive team, and conceded a further 28 line breaks. Their lineout was the worst in the competition, too. In the end, Filo Tiatia's reign as coach lasted just one year, but that was hardly a surprise given Jamie Joseph's presence in the stands throughout 2017.
This year: Again, the Sunwolves' squad has undergone an overhaul with only a few familiar names remaining from 2017. Joseph, too, has stamped his mark on the franchise, enticing Test skipper Michael Leitch home while also bringing a couple of former Highlanders in Jason Emery and Hayden Parks; the acquisition of Robbie Robinson, a Damian McKenzie style player, also adds intrigue. Joseph's brief should be simple: Shore up the Sunwolves' defence while adding a little more polish to their up-tempo attack. The attacking portion of that process will be aided by the recruitment of Tony Brown, as the former Highlanders coach is an astute tactician who should help to bring about better game management from the Sunwolves' halves. They will also be aided by the easier travel schedule within the Australian conference.
Fixtures: Brumbies (h), Rebels (h), Sharks (a), Lions (a), Chiefs (h), Waratahs (h), Blues (h), Crusaders (a), Hurricanes (a), Reds (h), Stormers (h), Rebels (a), Brumbies (a), Bulls (h), Waratahs (a), Reds (a).
Greg Growden says: The Sunwolves were fortunate to survive the axe themselves, with SANZAAR's desire for an Asian presence at the 2019 Rugby World Cup their only saving graces. They should find the going in Australia easier, though Joseph is no miracle worker. Furthermore, they moved on their terrifying mascot; he was the only scary thing about a game against the Sunwolves.
Greg Growden's tip: Last in conference.