The 2013 Super 15 Rugby season kicks off this weekend with two all-Australian ties as players seek to impress selectors ahead of the looming British and Irish Lions tour Down Under.
The Lions tour - held every four years to either Australia, New Zealand or South Africa - has forced a revamp of fixtures to give Australian teams extended time off from Super Rugby commitments in June and July.
And several star names will be missing from the competition, including talismanic All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, who is taking an extended break from rugby, and ex-All Black Sonny Bill Williams, who has jumped ship to Rugby league.
New Zealand and South African franchises consistently dominate the Super play-offs, but Australia coach Robbie Deans said the impact of the Lions' tour cannot be underestimated as a motivating factor for the Australian sides.
"I've got no doubt there will be [Australian] players who will emerge this year. Some will get an opportunity who wouldn't ordinarily have got an opportunity," he said.
The Queensland Reds were Australia's only representatives in the top six last year, when New Zealand outfit Waikato Chiefs were crowned champions after a crushing win against South Africa's Sharks. But while the Australians have the Lions factor to drive them and the Reds, Brumbies and NSW Waratahs have the firepower to beat any team, picking the champions remains a notoriously inexact science.
New Zealand and South Africa have seven teams with a realistic chance of making the top six.
From the New Zealand conference the Chiefs, seven-times champions Canterbury Crusaders, Wellington Hurricanes and Otago Highlanders are all likely to challenge, along with South Africa's Northern Bulls, Sharks and Western Stormers.
The Reds match-up with two-time champions the Brumbies in Canberra on Saturday is the marquee match of a quiet opening weekend.
The only other match this weekend sees the Melbourne Rebels take on Western Force on Friday. The Rebels have been boosted by news their main off-season signing, former Red backrower Scott Higginbotham, has recovered from a shoulder injury and will start.
Rebels hooker Shota Horie is poised to make history as the first Japanese player to appear in a Super Rugby match while Japan teammate Fumiaki Tanaka could turn out next week for the Otago Highlanders.
In round two next week, the Highlanders open against the Chiefs on the same evening as the Bulls and Stormers kick off the season for the South African conference.
The Southern Kings, who have replaced the Golden Lions, make their debut against the Western Force on February 23.
The Crusaders do not play until March 1.
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