Arguably the underrated competition in world rugby returns this week as the ITM Cup is back, with Canterbury hot favourites to reclaim their crown.
Expect points aplenty, a wealth of attacking ability and young talent to once again come off of this always impressive domestic production line.
Remember that players such as Charles Piutau, Francis Saili, Steven Luatua and Bundee Aki were relative unknowns this time last year. This term though, expect someone at the other end of the age spectrum - Rupeni Caucaunibuca - to catch the headlines as he forms a midfield combination with Rene Ranger at Northland in the second tier.
Favourites and rightly so, Canterbury definitely possess the strongest squad in the comp. Yes, they will miss a clutch of international stars for plenty of their regular-season but they have enough in the tank to challenge for the title. Losing Wyatt Crockett, Dan Carter, Kieran Read for instance becomes offset by the impressive Joe Moody, Colin Slade or Tyler Bleyendaal and finally Nasi Manu set to step in. Jordan Taufua will also do a job after being limited to rare opportunities in Super Rugby.
Other players to keep an eye on this season are backline duo Belgium Tuatagaloa and Milford Keresoma, while reliable hooker Corey Flynn is ably backed up by Ben Funnell and Codie Taylor. As said, depth in this squad is mightily impressive and we expect Tom Taylor, Adam Whitelock, Matt Todd and captain George Whitelock to be key to their 2013 challenge.
The Lions begin their season with three out of their opening four fixtures coming away from home. However, they have enough firepower to come through all those trips with flying colours as the likes of Alapati Leiua, Tim Bateman, Shaun Treeby and Lima Sopoaga look to shine in the backline. Up front they're skippered by lock Jeremy Thrush - who has already admitted to being determined to end Canterbury's five-year stranglehold on the competition - while flank Brad Shields will look to transfer his Hurricanes form to ITM duty. Victor Vito has plenty to prove meanwhile and who can ignore rising Baby Blacks star Ardie Savea?
Like the Christchurch outfit, Auckland will be without a handful of key players during the Rugby Championship as Charlie Faumuina, Keven Mealamu, Steven Luatua and Charles Piutau will miss some action. Wayne Pivac's side are third favourites and much of their hopes rest on Steve Hansen's usage of Piutau's as his form in 2012's competition was one that took the spotlight. Key players this year will be Piri Weepu, Luke Braid and Peter Saili.
Auckland begin against North Harbour, Manawatu and Bay of Plenty so should strong well. Expect them to make the knockouts despite Gareth Anscombe and Ben Lam's injuries.
The newly-promoted Steelers will sorely miss Tim Nanai-Williams and Mahonri Schwalger but have cushioned that blow with the signature of Hika Elliot from Hawke's Bay. Elliot adds experience to a side that impressed last season, with Bundee Aki, Frank Halai, Sherwin Stowers, Rey Lee-Lo and Baden Kerr set to lead their charge in 2013. Tana Umaga and Steve Jackson definitely have a backline of quality but it is up front where the doubt lies.
Ranfurly Shield holders and with flashes of quality in their group, Waikato should push for the top four but not the title. The arrival of Ben Tameifuna certainly beefs up their front-row but with Liam Messam set only to return for the business end, they need the likes of Jack Lam and Toby Smith to shine. Their backline is solid and it will be interesting to see how Sevens star Tim Mikkelson goes on the wing, but in truth they are unlikely to win the title.
While the quality of such backline players as Kurt Baker, Andre Taylor, James Marshall and front-row duo Chris King and Rhys Marshall is decent enough, Taranaki will miss the direction international fly-half Beauden Barrett brings. Set to be absent for the early-season, Barrett's absence leaves a hole. Perhaps more noticeable will be the departure of Craig Clarke, who heads overseas leaving a leadership gap James Broadhurst needs to fill.
Bay of Plenty
Finished last season with just three wins from ten games, the same as ultimately relegated side Hawke's Bay. It promises to be a similar basement battle. Tanerau Latimer and Willie Ripia are vital leadership cogs but we feel the absence of Brodie Retallick and Sam Cane due to Test commitments will hurt their hopes. One man to keep an eye on is forgotten centre Kenny Lynn, who hopefully will return to the form he was at before injury hit in 2012.
7 Bay of Plenty