SYDNEY: The 24th season of Super Rugby gets underway this weekend promising 19 weeks of highly competitive action as the southern hemisphere along with Japan serve up an appetiser for Asia's first staging of the Rugby World Cup.
For most of the 500-odd professionals who will suit up for the matches to be played out across four continents, the focus will not only be on winning but also on earning a ticket to rugby's showpiece tournament.
For some, a spot at the World Cup is no more than a pipedream, for others it will be snatched away by loss of form or the cruel hand of injury.
A rejig of some sort seems to be permanently on the drawing board at SANZAAR headquarters but there is relative stability in a second year with the same 15-team format and a contiguous season running from Friday's opener to the final on July 6.
As at the World Cup, more success for rugby powerhouse New Zealand looks like the safest prediction.
The Super Rugby case is, if anything, stronger with the five New Zealand franchises having won 16 of the 23 titles since the southern hemisphere provincial competition was launched in 1996.
The defending champion Canterbury Crusaders have landed nine of those and will be strongly fancied to put together a three-peat of championships to match the one they managed from 1998 to 2000.
Scott Robertson's team, who have lost three of 37 matches over the last two campaigns, has a fiercesome pack married with a backline that showcases an apparently inexhaustible supply of fresh talent.
The 2016 champion Wellington Hurricanes have plenty of talent too, not least in the Beauden Barrett-inspired attack, but they might lack the depth to mount a title challenge in their first season under John Plumtree.
Otago Highlanders, champions in 2015, and Waikato Chiefs (2012-2013) will always be tough to beat, while new coach Leon MacDonald will take up the task of getting results out of a talented squad at the three-times champion Auckland Blues.
A straw for the other four nations to cling to is that All Blacks players will be rested at stages throughout the season to ensure they are reasonably fresh when they pitch up in Japan.
This long-established policy may be why the New Zealand has a marginally lower Super Rugby title success rate in World Cup years - 60 percent as opposed 70.
NEW ZEALAND STRANGLEHOLD
South Africa's Johannesburg-based Lions have looked the team most likely to break the New Zealand stranglehold in recent years but they have fallen at the final hurdle in three successive finals.
The stream of players heading north to the riches of Europe at the end of each season has deprived the Lions of a handful of key forwards but they again look like being the pace-setters in the South African Conference.
Inconsistency and the inability to reproduce their home form overseas have bedevilled the Durban-based Sharks but there are hopes that they might be able to challenge, for conference honours at least.
The Stormers will have to do better than their zero wins outside Cape Town last year to compete, while the three titles the Pretoria-based Bulls won in the first decade of the century are fading fast in the memory.
New coach Pote Human will be relying on flyhalf Handre Pollard to fire his backline but internationals will be rested in South Africa too in order to aid the Springboks cause.
The biggest challenge to the Lions in the conference may yet come from Argentina, where the Jaguares have been quietly building since joining an 18-team competition in 2016.
Flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez will be missed but the core of the Argentina squad will be looking to improve on last year's quarter-final exit as they prepare for their World Cup campaign.
Only in Japan does rugby need a pre-World Cup boost from Super Rugby more than in Australia with the game in crisis in the home of the twice world champion Wallabies.
The well-resourced New South Wales Waratahs should set the pace again after reaching the semi-finals last year, while the Melbourne Rebels have brought in experienced backline talent for what looks like a "now or never" season for them.
The ACT Brumbies appear to be treading water in Canberra, while it might still be a bit early to expect too much from Brad Thorn's rebuilding project at the Queensland Reds.
The Sunwolves players are all assured of being in Japan in September, of course, but their contribution to building up excitement for the World Cup looks like being confined to the occasional upset.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)