The Super Rugby Aotearoa season kicks off on Friday with the Canterbury Crusaders again expected to set the pace in the New Zealand competition.
The Crusaders will be brimming with confidence against Otago Highlanders in Dunedin after beating their South Island rivals in five of their last six meetings.
Scott Robertson’s men won last season at a canter, adding to the record 10 Super Rugby titles already in the Christchurch club’s trophy cabinet.
Unsurprisingly, bookies have them as short-priced favourites for this year’s competition, which is slightly longer than last year with 10 regular-season rounds and a final between the top two teams on the ladder.
It will also be followed by a six-week trans-Tasman competition featuring teams from Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU, giving a possible glimpse into the tournament’s post-pandemic future.
The other round one match is on Saturday and features Wellington Hurricanes against last year’s surprise package Auckland Blues in the capital.
The once-mighty Blues finally ended years of underachievement when they finished runners-up to the Crusaders in 2020, their best result since 2003, when the Aucklanders won the last of their three titles.
But they will be without playmaker Beauden Barrett after the two-time world player of the year exercised an option in his contract allowing him to play in Japan this year while remaining available for All Black selection.
The Hurricanes have also lost a key player to a big-money Japanese club contract, with halfback TJ Perenara signing for Osaka-based NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
Waikato Chiefs, who have a bye this week, undoubtedly enter the season with the most to prove after failing to win a single match in last year’s competition.
Coach Warren Gatland’s highly anticipated return to his hometown team fell flat, with some critics blaming conservative tactics for the results.
Gatland is away this season, coaching a British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa that remains in the balance due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In his absence, temporary replacement Clayton McMillan must attempt to take over and build a credible challenge.
With the likes of All Blacks captain Sam Cane in the forwards and Anton Lienert-Brown in the backline, former provincial coach McMillan has talented players at his disposal.
But whether he will out-do Gatland and unlock their potential remains to be seen.