The Jaguares powered to South African conference honours in 2019, but it was an absolute logjam behind the Argentine outfit.
The Bulls and Sharks scraped into the playoffs, leaving the Lions and Stormers to ponder what might have been in the final round.
But who looks the goods this season and how will plenty of post-World Cup player departures affect the various squad lists?
Read on for a full conference preview below.
Coach: Pote Human
Captain: Burger Odendaal
Last year: The Bulls were the early pace-setters in the South African conference in 2019, before they were run down by a Jaguares franchise that made it all the way to the Super Rugby final. Still, a 35-28 loss to the Hurricanes in Wellington in the quarterfinals was in no way an embarrassing end to an otherwise solid season. The three-time champions also enjoyed their best Australasian tour in years, recording a win in Melbourne to go with two draws in New Zealand. Spearheaded by Handre Pollard, who led all fly-halves for try-assists and scored three further five-pointers himself among a season-high 194 points, the Bulls could hold their heads high in a year where all South African teams had to adhere to Rassie Erasmus' wider Springboks plan.
This year: First up, there is no Pollard. The brilliant Springboks No. 10 has shifted to French club Montpellier, only for a familiar face in Morne Steyn to return to Pretoria. The 35-year-old playmaker won't be a walk-up start in the No. 10 jersey with former Lions pivot Marnitz Boshoff, as well as Chris Smith and David Coetzee, also among Human's options at fly-half. There is plenty of speed and talent elsewhere in the backline, though the forward pack perhaps lacks some of the quality of past seasons. The Bulls' have two tough local derbies - against the Sharks and Stormers - on the road to start the year before a run of three games at home. Win those three matches, and one of their first two, and the Bulls will take off for a four-week road trip across the Indian Ocean in fine shape.
Draw: Sharks [A], Stormers [A], Bye, Blues [H], Jaguares [H], Highlanders [H], Reds [A], Waratahs [A], Hurricanes [A], Chiefs [A], Lions [H], Bye, Sunwolves [H], Brumbies [H], Lions [A], Sharks [H], Jaguares [A], Stormers [H]
Predicted conference finish: Third
Coach: Gonzalo Quesada
Captain: Jeronimo de la Fuente
Last year: 2019 proved to be the year when the Jaguares at last delivered on their clear Super Rugby potential. Boasting a virtual Test-strength line-up across their first four years of existence, it was perhaps a surprise that a first venture to the big dance had taken so long, though the reality of playing high-quality rugby week-in, week-out also must have taken some adjustment. Things weren't exactly looking so flash early in 2019 either as they dropped four of their first six games. But something twigged during their Round 8 win over the Bulls and after winning 12 of the next 13 games, the Jaguares were off to the Super Rugby final in Christchurch. That result, unfortunately, didn't fall their way, though they provided stern resistance right through to the final 10 minutes. Back-rower Pablo Matera was a standout while the Jaguares impressed both in attack and defence. The only team to concede fewer tries? The Crusaders.
This year: While the Jaguares can draw on their success of 2019, the more immediate memory of Argentina rugby was the fact the Pumas failed to reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 2003 when they lost to both England and France in Japan. The good news for the Jaguares and their supporters is that much of last year's Super Rugby squad has returned, save for the departures of the peerless Matera and veteran forwards Tomas Lavanini and Juan Manuel Leguizamon. Coach Gonzala Quesada will want to improve his side's discipline - they averaged the second most penalities conceded [9.8] in 2019 - but there looks to be few reasons why the Jaguares can't enjoy a strong season once again. A run of three straight home games to start the year has them well placed to do so.
Draw: Lions [H], Hurricanes [H], Reds [H], Stormers [A], Bulls [A], Sharks [A], Highlanders [H], Stormers [H], Bye, Rebels [H], Brumbies [A], Blues [A], Crusaders [A], Sunwolves [A], Sharks [H], Bye, Bulls [H], Lions [A]
Predicted conference finish: First
Coach: Ivan van Rooyen
Captain: Elton Jantjies
Last year: After three straight trips to the Super Rugby final - each of which finished in defeat - the Lions slipped back to the pack in 2019 to miss the playoffs altogether, though the Joburg outfit were still in contention up to the final regular season round. It had however been a difficult year for the Lions as coach Swys de Bruin was forced home from their Australasian tour while star skipper Warren Whiteley was again plagued by injury. On the paddock, the Lions scored the second most tries in the South African conference behind the Jaguares and were among Super Rugby's more disciplined teams as they gave away the third fewest penalties across 2019.
This year: New coach Ivan van Rooyen, at 37 years of age, will be among Super Rugby's youngest ever coaches when he leads the Lions into their Round 1 clash with the Jaguares. And he will do it without two of the franchise's finest players from recent times with Kwagga Smith and Malcolm Marx both now plying their trades in the Japanese Top League. Whiteley is also a playing casualty -- though he remains on the staff -- leaving van Rooyen with a youthful looking squad that could take some time to find its feet at Super Rugby level. Veteran fly-half Elton Jantjies remains and will pilot the Lions around the paddock while former Springboks prop Jannie du Plessis has arrived to add some much needed experience to the pack. These Lions could excite but they are also not the same team of a few years ago.
Draw: Jaguares [A], Reds [H], Stormers [H], Bye, Waratahs [A], Rebels [A], Blues [A], Highlanders [A], Chiefs [H], Sharks [H], Bulls [A], Sunwolves [H], Bye, Sharks [A], Bulls [H], Stormers [A], Jaguares [H]
Predicted conference finish: Fifth
Coach: Sean Everitt
Captain: Lukhanyo Am
Last year: The Sharks made their fourth straight playoffs appearance in 2019, but again exited in the opening weeks of the postseason, away to the Brumbies. In what was an incredibly tight South African conference, the men from Durban finished with one less victory than the Lions but still managed to claim sixth place overall through a draw, the seven bonus points they picked up across the year and a narrow win over the Stormers in Round 18. Interestingly, the Sharks' draw came against eventual champions, the Crusaders, in Christchurch to boot, but efforts like that were mixed with a hammering by the Jaguares at home, so too a defeat by the lowly Reds. The Sharks' biggest issue was again their attack, which could muster just the 41 tries [13th] across the season; line break and tackle busts [both 13th] only painted further woes with ball in hand.
This year: Everitt graduates to the Sharks' top job after taking the Currie Cup team to last year's semifinals, and he will bring a chunk of that squad through to the next level, too. There has been a huge turnover in the forward pack but there is no reason why they shouldn't cast off the attacking shackles of last year when you consider World Cup winners Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi are in the backline, so too veteran JP Pietersen, rising playmaker Curwin Bosch and the fleet-footed Lwazi Mvovo and Aphelele Fassi, are all backline options. Perhaps Everitt can set the team a new blueprint that capitalizes on those talents; that could hang on how a green forward pack comes together on their four-week Australasian tour that begins in Round 2.
Draw: Bulls [H], Highlanders [A], Hurricanes [A], Rebels [A], Reds [A], Jaguares [H], Stormers [H], Chiefs [H], Bye, Lions [A], Waratahs [H], Stormers [A], Brumbies [H], Lions [H], Jaguares [A], Crusaders [H], Bye.
Predicted conference finish: Fourth
Coach: John Dobson
Captain: Siya Kolisi
Last year: The Stormers were in contention for a finals berth going into their Round 18 clash with the Sharks, but a three-point loss at home meant they finished last in the South African conference and 10th overall. 2019 virtually followed the trend of the past few Stormers' seasons: their defence was of playoff quality, sadly the same could not be said on the attacking side of the ball. The Stormers managed just 34 tries for the year - equal fewest alongside the Sunwolves - while they sat out on their own at the bottom of the pile for line breaks . Those are simply not the attacking numbers of a team capable of mixing it with the best in Super Rugby.
This year: While other South African teams have seen many of their star Springboks head to Europe, the Stormers find themselves in an enviable position as skipper Siya Kolisi, World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit as well as forwards Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and Bongi Mbonambi, and talented halves Herschel Jantjies and Damian Willemse, all remain on the books. The momentum of Kolisi's story and sheer work ethic of du Toit will surely inspire the new forwards in Cape Town while coach John Dobson's challenge will be overhauling a game plan to give his halves, and the rest of the backline, more freedom with which to play. The departure of centre Damian de Allende, who had been the focal point of the backline for some time, has been offset partly by the arrival of Welsh veteran Jamie Roberts, while a friendly draw allows the Stormers to set their season up at home early.
Draw: Hurricanes [H], Bulls [H], Lions [A], Jaguares [H], Blues [H], Bye, Sharks [A], Jaguares [A], Rebels [H], Waratahs [H], Bye, Sharks [H], Chiefs [A], Crusaders [A], Brumbies [A], Sunwolves [A], Lions [H], Bulls [A].
Predicted conference finish: Second