Super Rugby kicks off a new era this week with the long-awaited addition of two Pacific islander teams to compete alongside the best from Australia and New Zealand.
Some fans may scoff at yet another revamp for the southern hemisphere tournament after constant tinkering in recent years.
But organisers believe the injection of Pacific talent in the form of the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika is a “game-changer” that will pique the interest of fans.
“Their inclusion will make this new competition one of the toughest in the world,” Rugby Australia chief Andy Marinos said.
Super Rugby has also jettisoned the much-criticised conference format in favour of a 12-team round robin over 15 regular season-rounds followed by a three-week finals series.
The new teams are designed to help Pacific island nations retain top players after decades of seeing them head overseas in search of professional opportunities.
The Drua, who will be based in Australia in 2022, comprises players from Fiji, while Auckland-based Moana focuses on harnessing talent from Tonga and Samoa.
Moana have attracted high-profile recruits in Wallabies veterans Sekope Kepu and Christian Lealiifano, as well as Samoa Test flanker Jack Lam.
The team suffered a pre-season setback when their entire squad was placed in isolation last week after seven players tested positive for Covid-19.
The outbreak forced the postponement of their season opener against Auckland Blues, meaning Fijian Drua will now kick off the competition when they face the NSW Waratahs in Sydney on Friday.
While the addition of the Pacific teams will add variety to the tournament, it is unlikely they would challenge Super rugby’s established powers for the title this season.
Among the 12 teams — five each from Australia and New Zealand, along with the two Pacific newcomers — the Canterbury Crusaders are red-hot favourites after claiming five straight titles under coach Scott Robertson.
The Crusaders, last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa champions, have added Argentine skipper Pablo Matera to a side already bristling with All Blacks.
Bookmakers have the Auckland Blues, reigning Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title holders, as the next most likely contenders, followed by Waikato Chiefs and Wellington Hurricanes.
Super Rugby AU champions the Queensland Reds are considered the strongest of the Australian teams and will be looking for star back Jordan Petaia to shake off a string of injury woes and fire their season.
Canberra’s Brumbies are also expected to be competitive as they nurture a crop of young Wallabies, including fly-half Noah Lolesio.
One of the most attention-drawing signings of the off-season is the arrival of Wales and British and Irish Lions centre Jamie Roberts to the NSW Waratahs.
Roberts should bring some steel to the leaky defence that kept the Waratahs winless on their way to the wooden spoon last year, but how much game-time they can wring out of the 35-year-old remains to be seen.
© Agence France-Presse