Super rugby fires back into life on Friday night with a new shape and a 15th team, but at the business end of the championship South Africa's Bulls are again likely to be the team to beat.
Blue Bulls lead Super 15 charge
Super rugby fires back into life tonight with a new shape and a 15th team, but at the business end of the championship, South Africa's Pretoria Bulls are again likely to be the team to beat.
The Bulls have won the southern hemisphere's annual provincial championship for three of the past four years and the new five-team national conference format should only improve their chances of another title.
The Canterbury Crusaders, New Zealand's seven-time champions, will have something to say about that, however, even if their challenge will probably be hindered rather than helped by the increase in the number of derby games each team has to play.
The teams will now play the other sides in their conference home and away and they will also play four out of five teams from the other pools once during the 16-fixture regular season.
The Bulls have lost to South African opposition just once since round nine of the 2008 tournament and that was when they rested players against the Cape Town Stormers last year with their place in the knockout stages already secured.
For the New Zealand teams, however, more heavyweight clashes like the season-opener tomorrow between the Crusaders and the Auckland Blues, the three-time champions, could make for a long grind of a season.
"I think what it means for the players is there is more intensity from week to week," Keven Mealamu, the Blues captain, said.
"Because when you are playing those matches there are bragging rights riding on it and making sure you're up for it every week [and]winning those physical battles is key to those local derbies."
The first weekend of fixtures is all derbies, the highlight being the Melbourne Rebels' first match against the New South Wales Waratahs in the Victorian capital.
The Rebels enlisted the help of Rod Macqueen to put the pieces of their squad together for the first campaign and even the coach of Australia's 1999 World Cup winning team admitted to being apprehensive.
"Everyone's a little bit nervous," Macqueen said on the team's website. It's special, the first run-out for a Melbourne side and it's a great honour for the players and that brings on nerves as well.
"It's great for rugby in Australia and it's great for this team. I think the players are just looking forward to it now."
Danny Cipriani, the former England fly-half who was the Rebels' first signing, will be on the bench for the match against the Waratahs, who look like the most likely of the Australian teams to challenge for the title this year.
The Waratahs' squad is replete with Wallabies and talents like full-back Kurtley Beale should give them a chance to go a step further than the semi-final they reached last year.
The exciting rugby played by the Queensland Reds brought them close to a place in the semi-finals last year and they and the ACT Brumbies - Australia's only champions - will hope the six-team play-offs might help this year.
The Springbok-heavy Bulls won their first six matches of last season and will be looking to get away to a similarly impressive start this year when they take on the Golden Lions in Johannesburg tomorrow.
"We will definitely aim to lay the same foundation this year," Frans Ludeke, the coach, said. "A good start against the Lions will be important, especially because they have so much momentum."
The Lions failed to win a match last year and finished bottom of the standings but the arrival of New Zealander John Mitchell as coach has engendered a feeling that respectability at least might be on the cards this season.
The Stormers, losing finalists last year, and Durban-based Natal Sharks will also be contenders to become the second South African team to win the title.
There is no doubt, though, that 2011 is New Zealand's year in rugby with the World Cup looming large in the southern hemisphere spring.
For the likes of Mils Muliaina, a good showing in Super rugby might offer a chance to secure a place in the All Black team trying to win the Webb Ellis trophy on home soil.
"It's hard to ignore," the Waikato Chiefs captain said. "It's a massive year. There is no doubt that you want to be an All Black and it's probably the only time New Zealand will host a World Cup [in the near future] so there is no doubt the competition will be ferocious out there."