Points to prove for Aussie Super Rugby teams
Motivation can be found everywhere for Australia's derided Super Rugby teams and hungry players as the 2013 Super Rugby season kicks off on Friday week.
A reputation of being the adventurous innovators of the code's premier provincial competition faded well away after a forgettable and frustrating 2012.
While each player is desperate to earn a Wallabies jersey for the blockbusting British and Irish Lions series, Australian teams have a collective point to prove after becoming the poor partners in the three-way SANZAR alliance.
All bar the Queensland Reds - who averaged crowds of 33,000 on their way to the play-offs - had the blues.
Even the competition's big surprise-packet and feel-good story, Jake White's resurgent Brumbies, ended the season in gut-wrenching disappointment after missing the play-offs due to their last-round upset loss.
There was no denying the Australian conference was the weak link as the Waratahs (11th), fledgling Melbourne Rebels (13th) and Western Force (14th) finished among the bottom five teams.
They enjoyed just 11 wins between them, and only four of those came against Kiwi or South African opponents.
Their mostly dour play, especially in ugly all-Australian derbies, also has bored fans switching off and television ratings dropping further off the pace in comparison to the AFL and NRL.
Not only was the Australian conference lampooned, overseas critics questioned the Reds and seventh-placed Brumbies credentials, alleging their ladder positions were merely bolstered by an easier draw against battling compatriots.
But Ewen McKenzie, who has guided Queensland to the past two Australian conference titles plus the 2011 championship, can see a quick turnaround this year.
"I don't think a lot has to change if you really think about it," McKenzie said.
"The Brumbies obviously had a good year and if they can repeat that they'll be competitive and up there.
"The Rebels are gradually improving and the Force will take a new direction and that will spark them."
But it's the Waratahs who former NSW coach McKenzie most expects to hit back with a vengeance under new mentor Michael Cheika.
McKenzie and Cheika were long-time Randwick clubmates and the Queensland boss believes his good friend has all the right attributes to put pride and identity back into the Waratahs jersey.
"The reality of the Waratahs is they only won four games last year and had the majority of the Test team," he said. "You'd have to think the wheel will turn. There's no question they will improve.
"Cheika will culturally get them focussed. He's very motivated, he understands team culture and will do a good job."
Due to the Lions tour, the first Down Under since the epic 2001 series, the 18th Super Rugby competition has been forced into a staggered start with a unique draw.
Four of the five Australian sides kick off a week before their foreign rivals and they'll also play 15 of their 16 fixture matches before the June international break.
The changes mean a strong start - like the old Super 12 - is crucial.
"You don't have a month to get into the tournament," McKenzie stressed.