It's that time of year again: Summer is still in full swing in the southern hemisphere but Super Rugby is upon us. Stock up, a long season lies ahead.
Many clichés have been attached to the world's top club/provincial/franchise competition but the most apt description is probably a 'marathon.'
Super Rugby is not won in February. It's not won in May, as it once was. Hell, it's not even won in June or July. No, the eventual winner will raise the trophy on August 3, after nearly six months of gruelling rugby, interrupted only by the June Test window. Australia's teams will even have extra games thrown in against the touring British and Irish Lions.
Fourie du Preez once said that amongst his fondest memories he ranked winning the Super Rugby title with the Bulls above the 2007 World Cup because a championship-winning campaign requires you to invest so much, for so long.
The length and intensity of the season provide coaches and their fitness staff with a very difficult challenge: peak too soon, and you'll run out of gas when the going gets tough; start your campaign underdone, and you'll struggle to regain ground lost in the early weeks.
Add to that the pressures coming from national coaches to manage the workloads of Test players, the expectations and fans, sponsors, broadcasters and in some cases even politicians....going the distance requires more than just an abundance of talent and hard work, a generous sprinkling of good luck is essential.
Before we look ahead to the battles on the horizon let's recap the lessons learnt from last season:
Awesome defence is not enough to win the title
...just ask anyone in Cape Town! Stormers coach Allister Coetzee told us all season that they would be able to up the tempo in the play-offs and score tries against the big teams when it counted. But when they fell behind in the semi-final against the Sharks, the table-toppers could not find an extra gear and all the tackles in the world couldn't get the scoreboard ticking fast enough.
Tries, and the bonus points that come with scoring a lot of them, are often the difference when it comes to make the cut for the play-offs, as the Bulls and Sharks showed last year when four teams finished on ten points, but only two qualified for the knockout rounds.
Derby victories are the key to making the play-offs.
Especially in Australia! With the three conference winners guaranteed a home semi-final or play-off, the points garnered from local derbies are all-important. The Reds illustrated this point perfectly last year by claiming third place in the overall table despite having fewer points than the Crusaders, Bulls and Sharks.
Upsets WILL happen
The most exciting part about this tournament has always been the fact that (just about) any team is capable of winning on any given day. Superstar line-ups count for nothing. The Blues got regular hidings in 2012 despite field a team packed with All Blacks, the Cheetahs won in Wellington, the Force thumped the defending champions and the Crusaders lost in Melbourne - it's a bookmaker's nightmare!
The little guys won't go the distance
We've had four different winners in the last five years, but in the seventeen-year history of the tournament, only six sides have been crowned champions. Only the big guns have the squad depth to keep winning week in and week out. As usual, there will be an almighty battle in mid-table, but only a handful of teams have what it takes to go all the way.
The current system is unfair
Half the trick to winning this competition is getting a favourable draw. Who you play at home rather than away is hugely important. Trips to Christchurch and Pretoria are far less appealing than visits to Perth or Bloemfontein.
Beyond the complaints about the under-strength Australian division, the fact that sides only play four of the five teams in each of the other two national conferences, means who you DON'T play is sometimes as important as who you do.
With further expansion on the cards for the near future, we hope that whatever the new system is, it aims to resolve these inequalities. A pool system similar to the Heineken Cup would be the fairest solution in sporting terms, but it's unlikely to happen given Australia's requirement for a pseudo-national league via the conference system.
The Blues, Hurricanes and Brumbies showed everyone how dangerous it is to make forecasts last year and another predictably unpredictable season is on the cards.
2012 was a poor season for Australian teams in general but many expect the Aussie conference to be much more competitive this term. The Waratahs are supposedly undergoing a revival under the influence of a new coach and with potentially the most exciting newcomer in their ranks, Israel Folau, a.ka. 'The next Sonny Bill'.
The Rebels will continue to make progress and are also set to turn a few heads thanks to Kurtely Beale, James O'Connor and Scott Higginbotham.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the Force who are probably a safe bet to finish at the foot of the Aussie conference.
"Second-season syndrome" is the catch phrase used to describe the Brumbies as we wait to see whether they can take the progress made under Jake White a step further.
The Reds are the favourites to top the conference once again with Quade Cooper the pivotal figure in their fortunes.
In South Africa, the Stormers and Sharks are expected to vie for top spot once again but the Bulls may well hold the key to the conference. The three-time champions are definitely play-off candidates but probably don't have enough for a fourth title. How they fare could make or break the campaigns of their compatriots. If a few young guys like Jan Serfontein fire, then the Bulls could go from darks horses to conference contenders.
The Stormers table-topping exploits of last year make them obvious candidates for a tilt at the title. Lions exiles Jaco Taute and Elton Jantjies could be the ingredients that were missing from the mix on attack last season.
Losing finalists in 2012 (for a record fourth time), the Sharks are the one South African side capable of adapting their approach to suit the opposition an conditions. Frans Steyn will be in the spotlight more than ever having inherited the captaincy while another ex-Lion Franco van der Merwe will hopefully shore up their line-out.
The ever-exciting Cheetahs are already struggling with injuries and are unlikely to finish above the big three, but they will probably provide the most entertainment. Springboks fans' attention will be focused on Johan Goosen.
The Kings are in more baptism of fire with most bets revolving around whether they'll even win a game. No team has shipped a 100 points in the history of the tournament. A dry day in Christchurch on March 23 could change that. Luke Watson has a tough job on his hands.
The New Zealand conference is the hardest to call and is set to be the most competitive.
The Crusaders are the bookies' favourites to claim an eighth title, their first since 2008. The addition of a few interesting names to their coaching staff has us believing they can go all they way under the leadership of Kieran Read.
The Chiefs have lost two phenomenal talents in Sonny Bill Williams and Sona Taumalolo, but still have a very good side and will expect to be in the mix at the business end of the competition.
As usual, the Highlanders might get found out if the depth of their squad is tested. The addition of Tony Woodcock , Brad Thorn and Ma'a Nonu (Blues) does however mean they have the strongest first XV we've seen in many a year.
The top try-scorers in 2012, the Hurricanes are sure to throw a spanner in the works of many a favourite. The loss of Cory Jane is a massive blow but the arrival of Ben Franks will add a new dimension to their pack.
The big disappointments of last year, the Blues are promising to bounce back under the guidance of John Kirwan, but it could be a bumpy ride considering the A-list players that have left for greener pastures. How long before captain Ali Williams is in the nurse's office?
For more info, check out our team-by-team previews:
New Zealand conference:
South African conference:
By Ross Hastie