Super Rugby: All aboard the player-go-round
It is not quite the frenetic trade of European football, but rugby's departures and arrivals lounges have been busy.
Player movement is part of Super Rugby, but a series of unrelated events - salary-cap pressure in Australia, aggressive recruitment by the Highlanders and the exclusion of the Lions among them - have contributed to an unusually active market.
Quantity is one thing, but it is the quality of the players finding new homes that stands out.
Established Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks have all opted for new pastures, while Israel Folau's hop from the AFL will bring opportunity, and scrutiny, to the Waratahs.
There are also two additions that deserve a special mention.
Japan will be represented this year, as halfback Fumiaki Tanaka (Highlanders) and hooker Shota Horie (Rebels) open up the competition to a whole new audience.
Their progress will be watched closely at many levels.
Paul Cully takes a look at the top 20 signings for the three SANZAR nations and what they will bring to their new teams.
The background: Still the best openside in Australia, but Michael Hooper is breathing down his neck.
What he brings: Peerless over the ball but needs to develop his all-round game. The Brumbies' environment can bring that out. At times at the Force, he seemed a little weighed down by the sheer number of roles he was expected to carry out.
Probable impact: Pocock will make the Brumbies even harder to break down. It should be finals time in Canberra after narrowly missing out last year.
The background: A return to his native Sydney after an outstanding last year, with high expectations.
What he brings. In a word, speed. A superb carrier of the ball, in tight or in the open spaces, and the man who will allow the Waratahs to play in a different way.
Probable impact: He'll bring dynamism to the breakdown, which automatically brings the Waratahs closer to the Reds and Brumbies. The Australian conference should be a three-horse race this year.
The background: One of the hardest men to have played the game and even at 38 an imposing figure who lifts standards wherever he goes.
What he brings: Huge physicality around the park, and a V8 engine to the tight-head side of the Highlanders' scrum, which has been targeted by the better teams in the past.
Probable impact: The Highlanders pack will rarely be beaten this year, but the New Zealand conference is a hugely competitive beast. Finals no guarantee.
The background: We're bending the rules a little here, but sometimes the most influential appointments take place off the field.
What he brings: Wisdom, organisation and experience as part of a beefed-up new coaching team led by another knight, John Kirwan, and including former All Blacks skills coach Mick Byrne.
Probable impact: There is a wave of young talent coming through the Blues region in the next few years - the Reds got an early taste last weekend of how physical they are - and Henry's input in moulding them will be invaluable. The Blues will hurt a few sides this year.
The background: A risk, but one worth taking. Talent is not the question with Folau, it's whether there is enough time to get him up to speed.
What he brings: Explosive lower-body power - the reason behind that vertical leap, which we might see at restarts - a lovely, evasive running style and an instinct for the try line. He'll bring a few more eyeballs too, even those wanting to see him fail.
Probable impact: After three tries in his first two trial games, the challenge will be keeping expectations in check. But if the Waratahs can use him correctly, they can be in the mix with the Reds and Brumbies at the top end of the Australian conference.
The background: Young Springboks outside back on loan from Johannesburg and looks set to occupy the Stormers No 15 jersey.
What he brings: Pace, size and a willingness to counter-attack. Taute is a class act and has been since he burst on the scene a few years back.
The Stormers are serious contenders this year and the likes of Taute could be the pieces of the jigsaw that were missing in the past.
Probable impact: Taute and fellow recruit Elton Jantjies can help secure a top-four spot for the Stormers - and perhaps much more.
The background: An acrimonious departure from the Blues, where he occasionally showed his best form.
What he brings: The complete package at No 12 - size, speed and surprisingly deft touches. A potential nightmare for defences off halfback Aaron Smith's snappy delivery.
Probable impact: The Highlanders have signed a wrecking ball, but have been robbed of a potentially outstanding midfield partnership after Tamati Ellison's long-term shoulder injury.
The background: The Reds have been adept at keeping their title-winning side together, but the Wallabies No 6 is the one that got away.
What he brings: Athleticism, power and an excellent lineout operator. Yet to dominate at Test level, but built for the looser style of Super Rugby.
Probable impact: The Rebels have not been shy in identifying a finals berth as their goal, but they'll need an exceptional campaign from Higginbotham and others to achieve that. They might, however, put a few significant dents in the finals aspirations of their Australian rivals.
The background: A signing that will delight those in Perth and irk New Zealand powerbrokers: the four-test All Black - now ineligible for his country - still has much to give.
What he brings: We all know about his acceleration, but his measured play in guiding a young Auckland team to last year's ITM Cup final was also impressive.
Probable impact: Injury to Brett Sheehan means Mathewson will get first crack at the starting spot, and he will give the Force a much-needed running threat from the base of the ruck and scrum.
The background: Perhaps he was feeling a little stale at the Blues, so stoked his own personal fire with a move to Dunedin.
What he brings: The best scrummaging loose-head in New Zealand, by a distance, and likely to relish the brutal approach Jamie Joseph's sides bring to the breakdown and work around the fringes.
Probable impact: Woodcock will turn the Highlanders scrum - which was targeted by the better teams - into a potential weapon.
The background: The Christchurch side's rotation policy in the front row came back to bite them because the older Franks brother left for Wellington for more game time.
What he brings: Credibility to the Hurricanes scrum, and mobility around the park. Will reportedly concentrate on the loose-head side, but can play at No 3, too.
Probable impact: The Hurricanes must have thought it was Christmas when Franks arrived. Of the areas they needed to strengthen, one was the front row. Should push hard for a finals berth.
The background: Exceptional promise in the No 10 jersey, but now in an environment to take the next step.
What he brings: Jantjies won his first Springboks cap against the Wallabies last year - due recognition for his talent. He'll cause a lot of problems with the front-foot ball the Stormers' pack serves up.
Probable impact: The Stormers tried to defend their way to a title last year and failed. The recruitment of Jantjies and Taute to play alongside the likes of Juan de Jongh and Bryan Habana holds the key to igniting the attack. If they click, watch out.
The background: Resumes injury-curtailed career in Australia after spell in Japan, and has the carrot of the Lions tour on the horizon.
What he brings: It's been a case of "What if?" during McMeniman's career at the Reds and Wallabies: injuries cut him down before his potential was realised. He is still relatively young, at 29, and if the Force get enough game time out of him they will go some way to replacing the hole left by Nathan Sharpe.
Probable impact: When fit, McMeniman was that rare thing - a Wallabies tight-five forward with a bit of edge. If he brings that back, the Force they will fancy their chances of tripping up some more fancied teams in Perth. Robbie Deans will be watching.
The background: A strong campaign in last year's ITM Cup for Wellington quickly had the Rebels dangling a Super Rugby contract in front of the New Zealander.
What he brings: Starred for Wellington as a counter-attacking fullback who could kick goals, but might occupy a wing berth in Melbourne. Could play No. 10, too. Think Mike Harris at the Reds - and possibly better.
Probable impact: Early season finger injury is a setback but those in the know say he was outstanding in the Rebels' pre-season training. When he returns, expect a valuable contribution.
The background: Surely one of the stories of this year's competition. Battled back from injuries and depression to return to where he belongs.
What he brings: Power - and plenty of it. In his prime, the now 31-year-old was a brilliant, direct runner, and while some of the pace might have gone, the physicality hasn't.
Probable impact: The Brumbies might have pulled off a bit of a coup here. Rathbone will add class, solidity and experience to a back line that looked a little green last year.
The background: Brings some compelling form into the season following an outstanding spell with Tasman in the ITM Cup.
What he brings: You suspect Betham might have been given a Super contract in New Zealand had he not already been signed by the Waratahs, such was his impact at Tasman. Pace, size and skill.
Probable impact: Thunder somewhat stolen by Folau, but the Waratahs' promise to play a counter-attacking style that will suit Betham down to the ground.
The background: The former Panasonic Wild Knights halfback won his contract after impressing with Otago, and played against the Chiefs at the weekend.
What he brings: Diminutive at just 72 kilograms and brave, Tanaka will suit the Highlanders' uptempo style perfectly. Great speed to the ruck, with a sharp pass. If he can survive the physicality, he might change a few minds about Japanese players at this level.
Probable impact: Likely to be introduced off the bench against tiring sides, Tanaka might crack open a few defences. A nightmare for lazy defenders around the ruck because he will run at holes.
The background: Ends an unhappy spell at the Waratahs, who were dreadful to watch last year and clashed with how the No.9 likes to play.
What he brings: A wonderful off-the-cuff running game, which is particularly hard to shut down on the hard track at Bloemfontein. His partnership with No 10 Johan Goosen should again ensure the Cheetahs are one of the better teams to watch.
Probable impact: Alongside the returning Juan Smith - back from two years of injury misery - Pretorius and the Cheetahs can prove more than just nuisance value this year.
The background: The former New Zealand under-20 No 10 was surprisingly delisted by the Blues, and picked up with some relish by the defending champions.
What he brings: Astute game management, an educated boot and a knack of accumulating points. Collected two tries in pre-season game in a team that plays to his strengths.
Probable impact: Will sit in behind Aaron Cruden in the pecking order but will be called upon during the long season. Gives the Chiefs some real depth in the playmaking role.
The background: Veteran hitman and occasional five-eighth takes his experience and uncompromising approach to last year's beaten finalists.
What he brings: An old head to back up Patrick Lambie in the No 10 jersey. With Freddie Michalak back in France, the depth he supplies will be crucial.
Probable impact: The Sharks played some superb stuff at the end of last season, and James's recruitment ensures they remain strong in the No 10 and No 12 positions.
Sydney Morning Herald