THE new Super 15 season kicks off this weekend with the Crusaders among the favourites as they look to regain their crown.
The Canterbury franchise have been the yardstick by which others are judged during the Super Rugby era, winning a record seven titles since the competition was introduced in 1996.
Dan Carter and company suffered semi-final heartbreak against eventual champions the Chiefs last season, and will have to do without talismanic leader Richie McCaw as the New Zealand captain takes a break from rugby.
But with a squad including the peerless Carter, outstanding number eight Kieran Read, the Whitelock clan of brothers Sam, Luke, George and Adam, plus the class of Israel Dagg, they will be among the frontrunners once again.
Reigning champions the Chiefs have lost the stardust of Sonny Bill Williams after the centre elected to return to rugby league via Japan.
But their title success was based on a formidable pack, and the hard edge of Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Ross Filippo will ensure they are testing opponents.
The Highlanders could also be dark horses having recruited World Cup winners Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu and Brad Thorn during the off-season.
It is a big season for the five Australian sides as the country gears up for the arrival of the British & Irish Lions in June.
As a result of the timing of the tour, the opening-round fixtures between the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force, and the Reds and the Brumbies take place this weekend, a full week ahead of the New Zealand and South Africa sides.
Last year proved particularly disappointing for the teams from Down Under, as only the Reds, the 2011 champions, managed to reach the knockout stages.
The Rebels and the Force will look to improve on their below-par displays in 2012, with the Melbourne side needing their Wallaby contingent of James O'Connor, Kurtley Beale, Scott Higginbotham, Cooper Vuna and Nick Phipps to provide a spark behind a front five lacking in grunt.
The Brumbies, fresh from recruiting the magnificent David Pocock at openside flanker and bringing Clyde Rathbone out of retirement, and the Reds, should again prove to be the strongest Australian challengers, but they will find it difficult to break the stranglehold of their rivals from New Zealand and South Africa.
The Sharks were the surprise package of 2012, the Natal outfit produced a run of outstanding displays on the road to reach the final, before being horribly exposed by the rampant Chiefs.
The Southern Kings will make their debut in the competition after the South Africa Rugby Union dropped the Lions after they finished bottom of the pile last year.
The lowest placed South African team this season will face the Lions in a two-legged play-off at the end of the year to decide who gains entry to the 2014 season.