CAPE TOWN: A leaner Super Rugby season with fewer, but likely more competitive, fixtures starts on the weekend in what organisers, broadcasters and fans hope will be a slicker, more watchable product.
The competition has been cut from 18 to 15 teams with the culling of South Africa's Cheetahs and Southern Kings, both of whom now play in Europe's PRO14, and the Western Force in Australia.
South Africa's Stormers and the Jaguares of Argentina get the 2018 competition under way at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday, with teams from Australia, New Zealand and Japan entering the fray in the second week.
Governing body SANZAAR bowed to pressure from stakeholders at the end of the last season when dwindling viewing numbers and empty seats at stadia made it clear the 18-team formula introduced in 2016 was turning off audiences.
"We believe 2018 will deliver a more competitive and compelling tournament with more unpredictable outcomes, and with an expansive and entertaining brand of rugby that tests players and re-engages our many fans across the globe," SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos said last month.
"With the hard decisions to re-structure Super Rugby behind us we can now look forward to a stronger tournament that promises to deliver the best versus the best."
The number of matches have been cut from 142 to 127, with the teams split into three conferences with Japan's Sunwolves moving into the Australian group after having previously been aligned with the South African sides.
Each team plays their conference opponents home and away and will take on eight of the remaining 10 sides in cross-pool matches.
The top team in each conference qualify for the quarter-finals, along with the five teams with the best records across the other groups.
New Zealand teams will be the ones to beat again as the Canterbury-based Crusaders look to defend their title and it is hard to see past one of them emerging victorious once more.
The Crusaders and the Hurricanes, winners in the previous two seasons, look the most likely contenders again, while in South Africa the Lions and the Sharks have the most bite.
Australian sides must find a way to win against their New Zealand counterparts if they are to be successful, having lost all 26 games between teams from the two countries in 2017.
The Sunwolves have targeted a top-five finish under new coach Jamie Joseph, but in truth would do well to win five games, while the Jaguares look a settled, potentially potent unit, especially at home, under new coach Mario Ledesma.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)