New Zealand's five Super Rugby teams will have an added incentive this year, playing for a new trophy that is being crafted for the Kiwi conference winner.
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew announced the initiative today at a Super Rugby launch in Auckland for what will be the 18th year of professional rugby.
The constant tweaks over the years continue with this year's tournament splintered to accommodate the tour of Australia by the British & Irish Lions.
The Australian teams kick off their season-proper this weekend with New Zealand and Australian teams joining the fray the next week.
While the Crusaders have a first round bye, the opening weekend of New Zealand action features local derbies between the Highlanders and Chiefs and the Hurricanes and Blues.
Tew proudly declared the New Zealand conference as "the toughest in the competition" as representatives from the five teams gathered at the Royal Akarana Yacht Club for some media opportunities and light-hearted rivalry on the water in waka.
"We think it is anyway. There will be 40 games played here and 20 local derbies ... that's what makes this competition the toughest in the world."
Tew said recognising the difficulties involved in winning the New Zealand conference was important. Jersey sponsors BNZ had come up with the idea of rewarding the New Zealand champion with a trophy that was now being made.
"We think it's a good initiative," Tew said. "It's not unusual in other conference competitions for the various champions to be recognised and rewarded."
Crusaders stalwart Ryan Crotty backed dup Tew's thoughts, saying that his experience over the last four years pointed top the local derbies being the toughest matches.
"We certainly spend the most time in analysis and preparation when we are up against a New Zealand side," Crotty said.
He brushed aside having the Crusaders' season stalled by the bye.
"That's guaranteed points," he chuckled, looking on the positive side.
Tew said the longevity and success of the Super Rugby format would again be highlighted this year with several New Zealand players in sight of their treasured 100th appearances - Piri Weepu (Blues), Kieran Read (Crusaders), Hosea Gear (Highlanders), Andy Ellis (Crusaders), Ben Franks (Hurricanes), Liam Messam (Chiefs) and Chris King (Highlanders).
"The mix of that experience with the exciting talent of the 43 players newly contracted to Super Rugby will create great competition for spots in the starting 15 while adding real spark to the on-field rivalry," Tew said.
"As well as the new talent, there are some old faces in new colours and some old faces in new roles, new laws come into play, and referees will sport a pink strip thanks to a new partnership with Pink Batts, which we announced yesterday."
Tew said New Zealand would follow the Lions tour of Australia with great interest, including his organisation with New Zealand hosting the next Lions tour in 2017 and keen to see another successful tour like the 2005 edition here.
In their final hit-outs this week, the New Zealand teams have staggered their matches.
The Crusaders play the Waratahs in Sydney on Thursday night while the Blues and Highlanders meet in Queenstown on Friday evening.
The Hurricanes and Chiefs clash in what is now becoming an annual summer showdown in Mangatainoka on Saturday afternoon.
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