Super Rugby starts for real next weekend. What's worth looking out for among the New Zealand teams?
OPINION: THE BLUES
Reasons to be happy: Charles Piutau was the form back on the All Black tour, and as a firecracker of a 22-year-old he's hardly likely to be suffering from boredom. The only limit on the attacking potential in the Blues is how much ball they'll get. In the forwards, adding Jerome Kaino to the loose trio mix with Stephen Luatua is like a Marvel comic superhero version of Tough and Tougher.
Potential Achilles heel: The tight five. John Kirwan would have blanched when he found out the biggest machine in the powerhouse, Culum Retallick, was out for six months.
The key: Benji Marshall could be a sensation at first-five, but if he's not, how long will it take for Kirwan to act ruthlessly?
Reasons to be happy: They think like winners, and why wouldn't they? The Chiefs now have the attitude of the Crusaders of the late 1990s, and that outfit won three titles in a row. They've also got, with Dan Carter on the sideline at the moment, the best first-five in the competition in Aaron Cruden.
Potential Achilles heel: Unlike the Blues, who dominated the first two years of Super Rugby, or the Crusaders of 2006, the Chiefs don't have such a ridiculous pool of talent they can afford an off day. They need their A-game every time they run out.
The key: In the All Blacks Liam Messam has been a revelation this year. With Craig Clarke gone, the Chiefs will need his steely leadership more than ever.
Reasons to be happy: The dreaded word potential no longer applies to Beauden Barrett and Julian Savea. They're now the full, world-class deal. Add in Cory Jane and Conrad Smith, and there are dynamite attacking possibilities. Ben Franks is back too, which means there's a solidity in the scrum missing in past years.
Potential Achilles heel: Losing Victor Vito and Brad Shields, each for up to eight weeks, leaves them paper-thin at loose forward, and, at this level of intensity, winning or losing the breakdown battle usually means winning or losing the game.
The key: Players change, but for years there's been a weird, persistent DNA strand in the Canes that makes them go haywire at crucial times. Coach Mark Hammett is one of the least flaky men you'd ever meet. Hopefully his personality has rubbed off on the team.
Reasons to be happy: Kieran Read and Richie McCaw together again, packing down with a tight five so huge that if you put them in light blue they could be the Bulls. There's continuity in the squad so they all know they can't afford the form slump that affected them midway through last year's tournament.
Potential Achilles heel: As the seasons without a title tick by, fewer and fewer players have the certainty in their own ability to win that in the past made the Crusaders so scarily tough to play. I'm not talking arrogance, I'm talking belief, and it's vital that champions like McCaw and Read now instil it in the men around them.
The key: Having Colin Slade, the unluckiest man in New Zealand rugby, stay uninjured, and show why he was once being talked about in the same breath as Andrew Mehrtens and Carter.
Reasons to be happy: There's no pressure of expectation. The TAB, which has money in the game, ranks them the lowest of the New Zealand sides. There is attacking talent, from Aaron Smith at halfback through to Ben Smith, who at fullback or wing is as good as anyone in the world.
Potential Achilles heel: A lack of depth in the squad. A couple of injuries in the backs, for example, and you're looking to players who've played fewer than 15 provincial games.
The key: Every single player going out with the same fearless commitment Brad Thorn, now 39, brings to every minute of every game.
My pick for a winner: Logic says the Chiefs, but seeing McCaw in the fold makes me tip the Crusaders.
- Sunday Star Times
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