Tight tussle for Kiwi Super Rugby supremacy
The battle between the New Zealand franchises again looks like the highlight of the 18th edition of Super Rugby.
Can the Crusaders break a four-year title drought? Can the Chiefs find the form of 2012 without Sonny Bill Williams? Will the arrival of Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn and Ma'a Nonu turn the Highlanders from nearly men to genuine playoff contenders? Can the Hurricanes continue their progress under Mark Hammett? Will Sir John Kirwan get the blues, struggling with a squad that's just too green?
They are all questions that will be answered 25 weeks from now.
The most intriguing one around these parts centres on the Hurricanes and whether Hammett's men can jump two places from 2012 and make the playoffs.
The arrival of All Blacks prop Ben Franks is positive, although the scrum was not the Achilles heel of the side in 2012 - defence was.
While the Hurricanes had little trouble scoring tries, they leaked them at an alarming rate.
Opposition teams are unlikely to kick as much to the Hurricanes this season, so Beauden Barrett's form will be pivotal to his side's chances, as will Victor Vito's ability to carry his pack forward.
At least Hurricanes fans will be warmed by the prospect of more scintillating attack, especially if halfback T J Perenara picks up where he left off before he cruelly broke his leg in the June international window.
Captain Conrad Smith shapes as the most influential figure in the squad and it will be up to him to demand more accuracy in defence.
Elsewhere, the Chiefs and Crusaders look the strongest of the two New Zealand sides.
The Chiefs coaching staff can downplay the loss of Sonny Bill Williams as much as they like but the simple fact is he created uncertainty in the opposition defence, and without him the side will not be anywhere near as potent on attack.
Still, they have all the ingredients to again be a major threat - a hardworking pack, an effective running halfback and a first five-eighth in Aaron Cruden who handles pressure.
If SBW's influence will be missed at the Chiefs then the Crusaders will equally feel the loss of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, whose extended leave does not end until July.
There are question marks over the depth in some positions but Kieran Read and Dan Carter have so much class, the rest of the squad will prosper if they are at the top of their game.
Coach Todd Blackadder should find a place in the side for Tom Taylor, either inside or outside of Carter.
If the Crusaders play a territorial game and rely on their experience to pressure opposition, then they have a good chance of breaking their title drought.
If experience is crucial in this competition then Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has pulled a masterstroke by bringing in Brad Thorn, Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu.
Though they have a gnarly pack, it could count for little if Colin Slade takes time to find form after a horror run of injuries, especially with Lima Sopoaga yet to prove himself at this level.
For all the new players, the form of Hosea Gear holds the most intrigue. Has he reached his peak? Time will tell.
The only real interest in the Blues will be how Taranaki trio Kane Barrett, Waisake Naholo and Jamison Gibson-Park step up to the rigours of Super Rugby.
They all have the potential to be regulars in the Blues, although Gibson-Park's opportunities could be limited behind All Black Piri Weepu.
Taranaki Daily News