SYDNEY • Super Rugby enters a brave new world when it embarks on its 21st season tomorrow but despite expansion into new markets in South America and Asia, it is a fair bet the trophy will be heading back to New Zealand for the 14th time in early August.
The competition's 18 teams, up from 15 last year, are now spread over four continents with 18,000km separating Tokyo, home of the new Sunwolves outfit, and Buenos Aires, where Argentina's new side, the Jaguares, are based.
South Africa's complement rises to six teams with the return of the Port Elizabeth-based Kings, while the resultant rejig of the competition, with Africa and Australasian groups and four conferences, will take some getting used to.
What fans can still expect, however, is plenty of fast-paced rugby and a torrent of tries, more so now that the try-scoring bonus point requires teams to outscore their opponents by three five-pointers.
The Southern hemisphere's dominance of international rugby was illustrated when New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina occupied the four semi-final spots at last year's World Cup. Europe still dominates in the money stakes, however, and it remains to be seen if the cash from broadcast deals negotiated around the new Super Rugby structure can help stem the drain of playing talent northwards.
Argentina will have their first chance to shine on the regional provincial stage when the Jaguares take on the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein tomorrow. The Sunwolves will make their debut on Saturday in Tokyo against South Africa's Lions.
Expansion teams have always struggled and that looks likely to be the case again this year, given the Sunwolves only appointed coach Mark Hammett in December and were unable to secure some of the key Japan national team players.
The Kings faced a player strike and were bailed out by the South African Rugby Union to ensure their return after their one previous season of Super Rugby in 2013.
Fans looking for potential title winners could do worse than take in tomorrow's Australasian double-header when the Auckland Blues host the Wellington Hurricanes before the ACT Brumbies take on the reigning champions Otago Highlanders.
The Highlanders and Hurricanes were the standout teams last season. The Hurricanes were early front-runners last season only to falter in the final steps, but should be among the contenders again.
The Highlanders triumphed last year but might find it more difficult with a target on their back from day one. The twice-champion Brumbies have retained a strong squad and, along with 2014 title-winning New South Wales Waratahs, look to be Australia's best prospects.
South Africa will have a sixth team and shortened tours of Australasia but Springboks continue to head north, weakening their franchises. The Lions have had more stability than most and appear to have the best chance of becoming the first South African champions since the Bulls in 2010.