The Mitre 10 Cup kicks off next Thursday as Canterbury look to defend their Premiership crown that they won against Tasman last year.
A 43-27 final victory over the Makos saw the Cantabs pick up an eighth title in nine years, with fly-half Richie Mo'unga their star performer.
But can they make it nine in ten? Once again it's a solid squad at their disposal and they also have a new head coach in Glenn Delaney, with Scott Robertson having moved aside after last year's triumph. Needless to say the foundations are there for them to challenge again.
Only seven points separated positions second to sixth last season as Taranaki, Tasman, Counties, Waikato and Auckland proved they are all capable of launching trophy bids. Of those Taranaki look the strongest, despite being without Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, Scott Barrett and Waisake Naholo who are either with the All Blacks or injured. They boast Johnny Fa’auli, Seta Tamanivalu and Charlie Ngatai in their group and should be there or thereabouts when the knockout stage comes around.
Tasman will, of course, be a threat with their entertaining brand and in James Lowe's final campaign, the Makos will be eager to send him out on a high. But, without the influential playmaker that is Marty Banks who has now moved on, it's tough to see them launch a consistent challenge that would see them go one better than last year. Don't however write them off.
Auckland too have talent and there will be players keen to prove a point to the All Black selectors, like George Moala, Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Tuipulotu and Vince Aso. On paper they're strong but minus Rieko and possibly Akira Ioane, ousting Canterbury will be difficult.
The red and blacks are a cut above at the moment and a large amount of credit must go to former head coach Robertson, whose infectious enthusiasm gave both Canterbury and the Crusaders a winning edge. There is quality everywhere in their squad and while the departures of Jack Goodhue, Jordie Barrett, Johnny McNicholl and Nathan Earle are a blow, Mo'unga, Rob Thompson, Matt Todd, Luke Whitelock and George Bridge are again set for strong campaigns that should prove decisive.
They are odds-on favourites and could be smiling again on October 28 due to their ruthless edge, with the bookmakers placing Tasman, Taranaki and Auckland next in line in what'll be another hugely entertaining season which regularly produces the next batch of Super Rugby stars with some, as we saw in 2017, having swiftly gone on to claim All Black honours.
Akira Ioane, Ben Nee-Nee, Blake Gibson, Caleb Clarke, Dalton Papalii, Daniel Bowden, Dexter Fa’amoana, Emersen Tamura-Paki, George Moala, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Isi Tu’ungafasi, Jamason Fa’anana Shultz, Jerome Kaino, Joeseva Ravouvou, Jono Hickey, Jordan Trainor, Siosiua Kaifa, JP Sauni, Kurt Eklund, Leon Fukofuka, Lisati Milo-Harris, Loketi Manu, Malakai Fekitoa, Marcel Renata, Melani Nanai, Michael Fatialofa, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Otumaka Mausia, Patrick Tuipulotu, Rieko Ioane, Salesi Rayasi, Sam Prattley, Sam Ulufonua, Scott Scrafton, Sinclair Dominikovich-Murray, Taleni Seu, TJ Faiane, Tom McHugh, Tumua Manu, Vince Aso, Wiseguy Faiane
Tim Bateman, Dominic Bird, George Bridge, Jed Brown, Brett Cameron, Wyatt Crockett, Ryan Crotty, Hamish Dalzell, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Dunshea, Ereatara Enari, Braydon Ennor, Kaveinga Finau, Owen Franks, Ben Funnell, Chris Gawler, Billy Harmon, Alex Hodgman, Oliver Jager, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Caleb Makene, Josh McKay, Joe Moody, Richie Mo’unga, Jonno Osborne, Reed Prinsep, Luke Romano, Tom Sanders, Jack Straker, Jack Stratton, Marshall Suckling, Codie Taylor, Rob Thompson, Matt Todd, Siate Tokolahi, Nathan Vella, Poasa Waqanibau, Luke Whitelock, Sam Whitelock
Nigel Ah Wong, Sean Bagshaw, Liam Daniela, Sione Fifita, Glen Fisi’iahi, Sam Furniss, Samuel Henwood, Riley Hohepa, Johnathan Kawau, Baden Kerr, Luteru Laulala, Nepo Laulala, Orbyn Leger, Fotu Lokotui, Pauliasi Manu, Matiaha Martin, Tevita Nabura, Tim Nanai-Williams, Albert Nikoro, Augustine Pulu, Toni Pulu, Ronald Raaymakers, Viliame Rarasea, Kieran Read, Joseph Royal, Gafatasi Su’a, Suliasi Taufalele, Viliami Taulani, Jonathan Taumateine, Coree Te Whata-Colley, Kalolo Tuiloma, Salimoni Tukinia, Jimmy Tupou, Sesimani Tupou, Matt Vaai, Sonny Bill Williams
Connor Collett, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Todd Doolan, Matt Duffie, Chris Eves, Bryn Gatland, Lewis Gjaltema, Harrison Groundwater, Bryn Hall, Daniel Hilton Jones, Jarrad Hoeata, Kane Jacobson, Tevita Li, Sione Mafileo, Nic Mayhew, Steven Misa, Hapakuki Moala – Liavaa, Brandon Nansen, Shane Neville, James Parsons, George Pisi, Glenn Preston, Adrian Smith, Chris Smylie, Shaun Stevenson, Mike Tamoaieta, Murphy Taramai, Mark Telea, Shae Tucker, Karl Tuinukuafe, Josh Tyrell, Matt Veaga, Ben Volavola
Logan Crowley, Johnny Fa’auli, Tom Florence, Mitchell Graham, Toa Halifihi, Finn Hoeata, Mike Kainga, Sione Lea, Donald Maaka, Manasa Mataele, Ciarahn Matoe, Marty McKenzie, Charlie Ngatai, Declan O’Donnell, Kylem O’Donnell, Reuben O’Neill, Stephen Perofeta, Leon Power, Leighton Price, Jared Proffitt, Ricky Riccitelli, Pita Sowakula, Asa Soravaki, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Seta Tamanivalu, Angus Ta’avoa, Brad Tucker, Latu Vaeno, Beaudein Waaka, Sean Wainui, Adrian Wyrill, Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, Scott Barrett, Waisake Naholo
Alex Ainley, Levi Aumua, Ethan Blackadder, Finlay Christie, Shane Christie, Ryan Coxon, Tima Faingaanuku, Vernon Fredericks, Shannon Frizell, Billy Guyton, Siosiua Halanukonuka, Kane Hames, David Havili, Tom Hill, Mitchell Hunt, Trael Joass, Will Jordan, Viliami Lolohea, James Lowe, Andrew Makalio, Alex Nankivell, Timothy O’Malley, Pari Pari Parkinson, Ti’i Paulo, Timothy Perry, Peter Samu, Liam Squire, Quinten Strange, Jordan Taufua
Pita Ahki, Jahrome Brown, Adam Burn, Sam Caird, Tyler Campbell, Sam Christie, Pele Cowley, Hame Faiva, Leva Fifita, Zac Guildford, Joshua Iosefa-Scott, Luke Jacobson, Mitch Jacobson, Ayden Johnstone, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Sefo Kautai, Harrison Levien, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sekope Lopeti, Jordan Manihera, Damian McKenzie, Atu Moli, Sevu Reece, Jacob Skeen, Bailyn Sullivan, Dwayne Sweeney, Latu Talakai, Tevita Taufui, Samisoni Taukeiaho, Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara, James Tucker, Loni Uhila