The 2021 Super Rugby AU season is here, albeit three weeks later than last year.
A lot has changed in the game since then, but the excitement within the Australian game has perhaps never been higher in recent times.
Crucially, the competition at last has some free-to-air television exposure with the Nine Network screening one game live each week. Stan Sport will carry every game live.
But the tournament begins with a Friday night double-header, with the Reds hosting the Waratahs before the Force will at last return to their home patch for the visit of the Brumbies.
The tournament has also introduced further law variations, including "golden try" extra time and instructions for referees to limit scrum resets.
Read on as we recap each team's 2020 performance, identify the player movements and look ahead at what this season might hold.
Coach: Dan McKellar
Captain: Alan Alaalatoa
Squad: Allan Alaalatoa, Lachie Albert, Tom Banks, Jahrome Brown, Tom Cusack, Folau Fainga'a, Issak Fines, Nick Frost, Archer Holz, Tom Hooper, Mack Hansen, Len Ikitau, Solomone Kata, Bayley Kuenzle, Harry Lloyd, Noah Lolesio, Lachlan Lonergan, Ryan Lonergan, Connal McInerney, Billy Pollard, Luke Reimer, Andrew Muirhead, Caderyn Neville, Reesjan Pasitoa, Tom Ross, Pete Samu, Rory Scott, Irae Simone, Scott Sio, James Slipper, Darcy Swain, Reece Tapine, James Tucker, Rob Valetini, Nic White, Tom Wright.
Last year: It was title No. 3 for the Brumbies as they claimed the inaugural Super Rugby AU trophy in front of a small, COVID-safe crowd, having seen off the Reds 28-23. Dan McKellar's side had earlier dropped just two games, away to the Rebels and Reds, the latter of which came on the eve of the playoffs with a line-up that had erred on the side of injury caution. Just as the Brumbies Super Rugby triumphs of 2001 and 2004 had been, this was another classic squad effort that brought the best out of each Brumbies player. The emergence of fly-half Noah Lolesio, and continued development of inside centre Irae Simone, and quality of finishers in Andy Muirhead, Tom Banks and Tom Wright, together with the established Test quality and mix of emerging talent up front, created one dominant Brumbies outfit. Mack Hansen and Bayley Kuenzle also did a fine job deputising while Lolesio was injured, too. And to top it all off, they got Nic White back late in the season. The Brumbies had earlier also built a 4-2 record in Super Rugby before its suspension, including a win over the Chiefs in Hamilton.
This year: What looked like being McKellar's final year before a potential shift to the Wallabies staff is now not so, the franchise ensuring stability for the next two seasons by extending him through 2022. Any issue that McKellar's future might become a distraction has been removed completely. And there has only been a minor squad upheaval at the Brumbies, experienced back-row duo Will Miller and Lachie McCaffrey have departed, so too scrum-half Joe Powell; but there is an array of exciting talent ready to step in. They have been hit by the loss of Tom Wright to injury for six weeks, but have depth on the flanks in the likes of Solomone Kata, Muirhead and new recruit Reece Tapine. Earmarked by Wallabies management last year, centre Len Ikitau will be one to watch while there is a real opportunity for the likes of Darcy Swain and Nick Frost to step up and make a Test claim at lock. But the big focus will be on Lolesio and whether his development continues in the No. 10 shirt. He has the game to deliver at the highest level, and got a taste of Test footy in 2020, but needs to back it up again this season. All in all, it's hard to see the Brumbies not there come Grand Final day on May 8th. The rolling maul again appears to be a huge weapon, certainly if the trial match against the Force is any indication.
Draw: Force (A), Waratahs (H), Rebels (A), Reds (H), BYE, Force (H), Waratahs (A), Reds (A), Rebels (H), BYE
Coach: Tim Sampson
Captain: Ian Prior
Squad: Bo Abra, Tim Anstee, Marcel Brache, Ollie Callan, Tomás Cubelli, Kyle Godwin, Victor Harris, Chris Heiberg, Greg Holmes, Richard Kahui, Feleti Kaitu'u, Rob Kearney, Kane Koteka, Tevita Kuridrani, Brad Lacey, Jono Lance, Fergus Lee-Warner, Tomás Lezana, Kieran Longbottom, Ryan McCauley, Jack McGregor, Jake McIntyre, Michael McDonald, Santiago Medrano, Domingo Miotti, Ian Prior, Jackson Pugh, Toni Pulu, Byron Ralston, Andrew Ready, Tom Robertson, Brynard Stander, Jake Strachan, Henry Taefu, Jeremy Thrush, Angus Wagner, Jack Winchester
Last year: They may not have managed a win on their return to the national provincial stage, but the Force still won plenty of fans in 2020 as they virtually came to the rescue of Australian rugby. Three years after they'd been deemed surplus to requirements, the Force agreed to return at short notice and complete a Super Rugby AU competition that would otherwise not have gone ahead without them. Their inclusion was enough to convince then-broadcasters Fox Sports to stick solid, and as a result the game had a heartbeat when it was very nearly flat lining. On the field, however, the Force did it tough. They weren't disgraced by any means - one heavy hammering from the Reds coming late in the piece - but they were clearly chasing their tails given the depth of their squad and a lack of preparation. They also had to play every game on the east coast, finishing with an 0-8 record. But there was a lot to like in the style they played, while Byron Ralston, Fergus Lee-Warner and Brynard Stander all caught the attention of Wallabies selectors. All in all, the Force's return to Super Rugby was one of the few stories from 2020 that generally had rugby fans feeling all warm and fuzzy.
This year: If last year was a celebration of their return, 2021 is the year when the Force will want to ditch that narrative and prove once and for all that the passion for rugby in Western Australia is strong. They have been the most active of any franchise on recruitment, Sampson and Head of Rugby Matt Hodgson scanning Australia's ranks and the globe for talent that will see the Force truly compete in 2021. Wallabies Tom Robertson and Tevita Kuridrani have found their way west while the Argentine brigade of Tomas Cubelli, Domingo Miotti, Santiago Medrano and Tomas Lezana bring some international experience alongside star Ireland recruit Rob Kearney. Former Reds fly-half Jake McIntyre is another excellent addition to the backline stocks. This will be a very different looking Force team to 2020 and, most importantly, they will have depth, rather than mere replacements, coming off the bench late in games. The biggest challenge for the Force is turning their attractive attacking structure into points. Ahead of the final round last year, the Force were averaging only 1.6 tries per game and a lowly 12.1 points. That must improve if they're genuinely going to push for a finals berth.
Draw: Brumbies (H), BYE, Waratahs (A), Rebels (H), Reds (A), Brumbies (A), BYE, Rebels (A), Waratahs (H), Reds (H)
Predicted finish: Third
Coach: Dave Wessels
Captain: Dane Haylett-Petty/Matt To'omua
Squad: Brad Wilkin, Cabour Eloff, Cameron Orr, Campbell Magnay, Carter Gordon, Dane Haylett-Petty, Ed Craig, Frank Lomani, Ignacio Calas, Illy Vudogo, Isi Naisarani, James Hanson, James Tuttle, Jeral Skelton, Joe Powell, Jordan Uelese, Josh Kemeny, Lachie Anderson, Lewis Holland, Lucio Sordoni, Marika Koroibete, Matt Gibbon, Matt To'omua, Michael Wells, Pone Fa'amausili, Reece Hodge, Rhys Van Nek, Richard Hardwick, Rob Leota, Ross Haylett-Petty, Steve Cummins, Theo Strang, Tom Pincus, Trevor Hosea, Young Tonumaipea
Last year: The Rebels enjoyed their best season on record but ultimately still made hard work of securing a maiden finals berth, which only came when they scored a try in the final minute of their final-round showdown with the Force in Newcastle. The Rebels had earlier shown glimpses of the kind of team they can be, defeating both the Brumbies and Waratahs away from their Melbourne home, and then were locked at 10-all at halftime of the elimination final against the Reds in Brisbane. But just as the Wallabies did later in the year, the Rebels lost the glue in their game with the departure of Matt To'omua just after halftime, and went on to lose 25-13. Consistency remained an issue for the men from Melbourne and they also had trouble scoring points, though not at the same level as the Force. There were positives in the emergence of young forwards Trevor Hosea and Pone Fa'amausili - both of whom earned Wallabies call-ups - but a lack of stability in the halves, again due to consistency of individual performance, certainly added to the Rebels' issues.
This year: The first big question will be whether a directive has come down from Wallabies coach Dave Rennie for Reece Hodge to spend time at fly-half. That would create a situation where Hodge and To'omua would be playing alongside each other week in, week out, giving Rennie a look at what that combination could bring at Test level. If not, rising Queenslander Carter Gordon could be the man to step into the No. 10 jersey. One player with a point to prove will be No. 8 Isi Naisarani who was left out of Rennie's Wallabies squad, the coach looking for "shifts" in his game around workrate while Dane Haylett-Petty also needs a big year as the fullback contenders at Test level continue to swell. Haylett-Petty is however battling ongoing concussion symptoms, with no firm date on when his return might be. Can the Rebels match their finals appearance of 2020, or even go one better and reach the big dance? They'll need to have their luck with injury as the squad depth just doesn't appear to be there, though the transition of former sevens stars Lewis Holland, Lachie Andersen and Jeral Skelton, in particular, adds intrigue to the Rebels' journey in 2021. His contract up at the end of the year, Wessels must take this team forward in 2021 if he's to earn an extension.
Draw: BYE, Reds (A), Brumbies (H), Force (A), Waratahs (H), BYE, Reds (H), Force (H), Brumbies (A), Waratahs (A)
Predicted finish: Fourth.
Coach: Brad Thorn
Captain: Liam Wright/James O'Connor
Squad: Alex Mafi, Angus Blyth, Angus Scott-Young, Ben Grant, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Bryce Hegarty, Dane Zander, Feao Fotuaika, Filipo Daugunu, Fraser McReight, Hamish Stewart, Harry Hoopert, Harry Wilson, Hudson Creighton, Hunter Paisami, Ilaisa Droasese, Isaac Henry, James O'Connor, Jock Campbell, Jordan Petaia, Josh Flook, Josh Nasser, Kalani Thomas, Lawson Creighton, Liam Wright, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Mac Grealy, Matt Faessler, Moses Sorovi, Richie Asiata, Ryan Smith, Sam Wallis, Seru Uru, Suliasi Vunivalu, Taniela Tupou, Tate McDermott, Tuaina Taii Tualimi, Zane Nonggorr
Last year: While they fell short of the ultimate prize, 2020 was the year when Queensland rugby was finally put back on the map after a lean recent run of results. While they made a slow start to Super Rugby, they just seemed to have turned a corner as COVID-19 struck; a big win over the Bulls and an outstanding performance against the Crusaders, albeit one that ended in defeat, suggested the Reds were once again worth turning up to watch. Crucially, they at last had a quality platform to work off up front. The 2020 Super Rugby Player of the Year, Taniela Tupou, was tremendous while the emergence of young No. 8 Harry Wilson was cause for genuine excitement. In the backs, Tate McDermott and James O'Connor built a strong 9-10 combination while Hunter Paisami, barely an Academy player at the start of the year, would finish up playing in every Wallabies Test. Winger Filipo Daugunu also impressed. Having dropped just two games through the regular Super AU season, the Reds pushed the Brumbies to the closing minutes of the decider, having twice surged back into the contest. The eventual 28-23 defeat would have been hard to handle, no doubt, but that disappointment will soon have given way to what could be possible in 2021.
This year: Coach Brad Thorn has retained the nuts and bolts of his 2020 squad, with only a few minor departures, meaning the Reds should have few excuses not to hit the ground running in 2021. One major setback, however, is an injury to skipper Liam Wright, which will keep him out of action for almost the entirety of Super Rugby AU. The Reds are otherwise in great shape personnel wise, and only further aided by the arrival of former Melbourne Storm star Suliasi Vunivalu. There is also excitement about Josh Flook north of the border, while Jordan Petaia will be hoping for a consistent run without injury. But it's not on the attacking side of the ball where the Reds need to find those small measures of improvement to go one better in 2021; their lineout percentage  was the worst of any team last year while their defence could also nod off, most notably in the first half of the 45-12 hammering by the Waratahs. The lineout looms as the tougher nut to crack; hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa really needs to hit his targets consistently. Look for the law tweaks around free kicks to really suit scrum-half Tate McDermott, who has already proven himself a brilliant sniper when opposition defences switch off. This is the Reds' year and two home games to start the season can help them set the tone for the season ahead.
Draw: Waratahs (H), Rebels (H), BYE, Brumbies (A), Force (H), Waratahs (A), Rebels (A), Brumbies (H), BYE, Force (A).
Predicted finish: First
Coach: Rob Penney
Captain: Jake Gordon
Squad: Robbie Abel, Angus Bell, Sam Caird, Joe Cotton, Jack Dempsey, Ben Donaldson, Max Douglas, Tane Edmed, Tetera Faulkner, Lalakai Foketi, Charlie Gamble, Jake Gordon, Jack Grant, Will Harris, Will Harrison, Tom Horton, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Alex Newsome, James Ramm, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Izaia Perese, David Porecki, Triston Reilly, Henry Robertson, Hugh Sinclair, Lachlan Swinton, Chris Talakai, Alefosio Tatola, Tiaan Tauakipulu, Carlo Tizzano, Joey Walton, Jack Whetton, Jeremy Williams, Sam Wykes.
Last year: 2020 was always going to prove a development year for the Waratahs, which only became tougher with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. NSW had won just one of their first six games when Super Rugby was suspended, before registering four further wins in Super Rugby AU. In the end, they only missed the postseason by the virtue of for-and-against - one solitary point to be exact - but suggestions later emerged that for Penney to keep his job the Waratahs had needed to win their final game a week earlier. They did. But departing players Jed Holloway and Tom Robertson later questioned the Waratahs' culture, or lack thereof, rounding out a tough year for NSW Rugby all round. There were some bright sparks, however, specifically the emergence of prop Angus Bell, fly-half Will Harrison and young winger James Ramm. Harrison, in particular, got better with every game and finished Super Rugby AU with an impressive 92 percent success rate from the kicking tee. The Waratahs were keen to attack and play with width, a strategy which had its moments, but was also exposed by teams who were well organised in defence and attacked the breakdown in the wider channels by catching NSW behind the gainline. The lack of size up front was an issue for Penney's men.
This year: After waving goodbye to a wealth of experience at the end of 2019, the Waratahs again have been forced to restock following what chief executive Paul Doorn admitted was a challenging time for the franchise. Following Kurtley Beale out the door were Wallabies Rob Simmons, Karmichael Hunt and Ned Hanigan while Michael Hooper is now in Japan for his playing sabbatical. Other lower profile players have also departed, meaning there is a swathe of new faces in the Waratahs ranks for 2021. It will be up to new captain Jake Gordon to take charge and really stamp his authority on the squad, while Penney will also need to bring his players together and really wipe the slate clean. Jack Dempsey also has a vital role to play as one of the few experienced players up front, the back-rower another with a point to prove following his Wallabies omission last year. All in all, it looks like a tough slog for the Waratahs in 2021. There is no real x-factor and a lack of experience up front, particularly with Hooper missing for the first time in nine years, making it difficult for them to really push the likes of the Brumbies and Reds. NSW shouldn't have to "rebuild" given their playing resources, but this very much looks like a year of exactly that. Former Reds and Broncos winger Izaia Perese is an interesting late addition to the squad, the speedster was on the verge of Wallabies selection before deciding to switch codes.
Predicted finish: Fifth