Fourteen teams, 94 matches and 7,520 minutes of bone-crunching southern hemisphere rugby can mean only one thing heading into the weekend... the Super 14 is here, folks!
The 2010 season will be the fifth and last season of the expanded Super 14 format, and there will be no love lost this Valentines weekend as Round One gets underway with a feast of local derbies to kick-start the championship.
On Friday, the Blues and Hurricanes open the tournament in Albany before the action crosses over the Tasman sea to Perth where an all-Aussie hit-out pits the Western Force against the Brumbies. In South Africa, the Cheetahs face a tough opening encounter against the defending champion Bulls on their home turf in Bloemfontein.
On Saturday, the Crusaders host the Highlanders at Christchurch, the Reds and Waratahs play their annual grudge match at Brisbane before the Lions tackle the Stormers in Johannesburg. The Sharks and Chiefs then end off the weekend's action in Durban - only match not featuring domestic sides.
As the Bulls proved last year, late-season momentum and home advantage in the play-offs means everything but nobody will want to slip from contention in the opening weeks.
Blues v Hurricanes
A mouth-watering Super 14 opener awaits us in Albany as the Blues and Hurricanes aim to get their season off to a winning start.
There's nothing like an all-Kiwi affair to kick-off the weekend festivities, especially when the two sides playing have a preference to give the ball some air. This, coupled with several All Blacks on display, almost guarantees to be an entertaining spectacle.
With the pre-season out of the way, it's now down to business as the Blues look to bounce back from last year's ninth place finish and push for a return to the play-offs.
Since dominating the early days of the Super 12, the Blues have largely underperformed given their resources and it's easy to see them falling short again this year. The season-ending loss to injury of All Blacks lock Ali Williams, three minutes into his pre-season, is a body blow the Blues may struggle to recover from even though they seem to have patched some holes in key positions.
Coach Pat Lam will need to get the most out of new number ten Stephen Brett while his team must avoid the injury disasters that struck last year.
It's a tough opening encounter for the three-time Super Rugby champions against their North Island rivals who are gunning for their sixth semi-final appearance in eight years under coach Colin Cooper.
The Hurricanes roster once again boasts a quality all-round feel, making it hard to rule out a place in the top four again in 2010. The question is whether the motivation of Cooper's departure at the end of this season can spark a maiden title.
The 'Canes got the better of the Blues last season, winning 45-27 in Wellington - a result the hosts would love to overturn come kick-off on Friday.
Super head to head: Alby Mathewson v Piri Weepu. The focus at Eden Park will be at scrum-half, where rising star Alby Mathewson makes his Super 14 debut for the Blues against his former team-mates. Having played under Piri Weepu for so many seasons at the Hurricanes, an interesting battle between the master and his former apprentice is on the cards - both keen to ignite two exciting back-lines in the competition.
Prediction: With Eden Park undergoing a major face lift for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the Blues are playing this match across the Harbour Bridge at Albany so that might help the Hurricanes' cause. However we think the Blues might have the edge over a Hurricanes' outfit that may need a game or two to dust off the cobwebs. Blues to win by six points.
Blues: 15 Rudi Wulf, 14 Rene Ranger, 13 Isaia Toeava, 12 Benson Stanley, 11 Joe Rokocoko, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Viliami Ma'afu, 7 Serge Lilo, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Anthony Boric, 4 Kurtis Haiu, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Charlie Faumuina, 18 Filo Paulo, 19 Peter Saili, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 22 Paul Williams.
Hurricanes: 15 Cory Jane, 14 Tamati Ellison, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Willie Ripia, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Scott Waldrom, 6 Nick Crosswell, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Michael Paterson, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 John Schwalger.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Jacob Ellison, 18 Bryn Evans, 19 Karl Lowe, 20 Tyson Keats, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 David Smith.
Date: Friday, February 12
Kick-off: 19:35 local
Venue: North Harbour Stadium
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Assistant referees: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand), Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Western Force v Brumbies
If the Force are to be a force in the Super 14, they are going to have to win their big matches at home - starting with the Brumbies in Perth on Friday.
Up until now victories have been few and far between, but what better way to turn things around than to take out the Brumbies in Round One at home? Easier said than done...
The Western Force were rocked on the eve of the tournament with the season's loss of their South African marquee star Andre Pretorius.
The former Springbok fly-half suffered a serious left hamstring injury in training and will miss the entire season without making an appearance for the Western Australia franchise.
It is a major blow for the Force, under former All Black coach John Mitchell, already without Matt Giteau (now a Brumby) and Drew Mitchell (now a Waratah) from last year's team which finished eighth.
Their record at the Subiaco Oval has been abysmal at best and the move to the rectangular Members Equity Stadium may just be the start of something good. The seating capacity is down from Subiaco but the benefits of having supporters closer to the action may turn a few close ones in their favour.
Over to the Brumbies, and the two-time Super Rugby champions will know a win in the opening round will boost their confidence before leaving on a tough two-match trip to South Africa.
The men from the Australian capital look to be Australia's most likely title challengers with the acquisition of Wallaby skipper Rocky Elsom and fly-half Matt Giteau, although the latter will take no part in the opening clash after failing a fitness test.
Giteau or no Giteau, the squad is packed to the rim with talent and even if the Force can count their blessings that they won't be facing their former star playmaker, they still have to deal with the likes of Wallabies Stirling Mortlock, Adam Ashley-Cooper, George Smith and Stephen Moore who make up a core of big-match experience.
Super head to head: James O'Connor v Adam Ashley-Cooper. Ok, full-backs rarely clash with one another, but that doesn't mean that these two talents won't be going head to head for the Wallaby number fifteen jersey come Test selection in a few months time. Australia coach Robbie Deans will be watching with notepad and pencil in hand, but who gets the most ticks next to their name remains to be seen.
Prediction: There's not much separating these two as far as previous results are concerned. They've played each other four times and won two apiece, with the Western Force perhaps ahead in the advantage stakes having won their last two outings against the Brumbies. Tough call, but we think the visitors may have too much international experience in their tank to lose this one. Brumbies to win by eight points.
The teamsWestern Force: 15 James O'Connor, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Ryan Cross, 12 Sam Harris, 11 Cameron Shepherd, 10 Mark Bartholomeusz, 9 Brett Sheehan, 8 Richard Brown, 7 David Pocock, 6 Matt Hodgson, 5 Nathan Sharpe (c), 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Matt Dunning, 2 Pek Cowan, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Ben Whittaker, 17 Tim Fairbrother, 18 Richard Stanford, 19 Ben McCalman, 20 Chris O'Young, 21 Mitchell Inman, 22 Josh Tatupu.
Brumbies: 15 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14 Pat McCabe, 13 Stirling Mortlock, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Francis Fainifo, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Josh Valentine, 8 Stephen Hoiles (c), 7 George Smith, 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 Justin Harrison, 4 Mark Chisholm, 3 Guy Shepherdson, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Huia Edmonds, 17 Salesi Maafu, 18 Ben Hand, 19 Mitchell Chapman, 20 Patrick Phibbs, 21 Tyrone Smith, 22 Alfi Mafi.
Date: Friday, February 12
Venue: Members Equity Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 19:05 (11:05 GMT)
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nathan Pearce (Australia), Julian Pritchard (Australia)
Television match official: George Ayoub (Australia)
Cheetahs v Bulls
The Bulls get their title defence underway against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Friday, but don't expect one-way traffic over last year's wooden spoon holders.
The Bulls may have finished top and the Cheetahs rock-bottom in 2009, but the hosts have beaten their neighbours many times before and will feel confident knowing they ran the same opposition close in the Currie Cup final last year.
But as is always the case with the Free State side, their inability to convert the Currie Cup success into Super 14 results may continue to haunt them unless they have the self-belief.
However, the Cheetahs seem to have a bit more stability than last year in that only a handful of players have left for greener pastures - this can only help their cause as familiar faces front up once again, which is important for momentum.
But while they boast outstanding individuals in Bok loose forwards Juan Smith and Heinrich Brussow as well as a formidable front row, the Bloemfontein outfit lack depth - a weakness that could be exposed if things don't go their way against the Bulls.
Speaking of the Bulls, it's little consolation for the Cheetahs that their arch rivals will arrive at Vodacom Park with fourteen of the players that tasted success in the Super 14 final last year.
To put it in a nutshell: this team means business. The only trouble facing the Bulls is player fatigue as ten Springboks who played non-stop rugby in 2009 make up the bulk of the side.
The Bulls' Test players barely had a respite from intense competition in 2009 - their championship run in the Super 14 was followed closely by the physical British and Irish Lions series, a bruising Tri-Nations tournament, before rejoining the Bulls for the latter stages of the Currie Cup. And then there was that taxing end-of-year tour...
So if their was any time for the Cheetahs to take full advantage, it's now.
Super head to head: Cheetahs fatties v Bulls heavies (The front row). In a typical South African derby, it's hard not to turn all the attention towards the forward packs. The Bulls has some questions posed of their scrum last season, but not to the extent that the pressure left them hamstrung elsewhere. The Cheetahs' scrum is clearly their most potent weapon, especially now that referees are required to be more vigilant at this set-piece. An intense battle awaits. Crouch, touch, pause, engage!
Prediction: While all signs point to a Bulls win, there's a select few at the office that can sniff a potential banana skin just waiting to be stepped on for the defending champs against the underdogs. Ah, what the heck... Cheetahs by 3.
Cheetahs: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Lionel Mapoe, 13 Corné Uys, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Jongi Nokwe, 10 Naas Olivier, 9 Tewis de Bruyn, 8 Ashley Johnson, 7 Juan Smith (c), 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 David de Villiers, 4 Nico Breedt, 3 WP Nel, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Waltie Vermeulen, 19 Frans Viljoen, 20 Sarel Pretorius, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Danwel Demas.
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Jaco Pretorius, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 John Mametsa, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Pedrie Wannenburg, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Gary Botha, 1 Gurthrö Steenkamp.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Bees Roux, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Derick Kuün, 20 Heini Adams, 21 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 22 Stephan Dippenaar.
Date: Friday, February 12
Venue: Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein
Kick-off: 19:10 (17:10 GMT)
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan
Assistant referee: Marius Jonker, Reuben Rossouw
TMO: Shaun Veldsman