SR PREVIEW: Round One, Part One
LET THE GAMES BEGIN: It is with great excitement that we await the opening salvos of the 2017 Super Rugby season - which, for the first time, includes a Thursday game.
While the Rebels and Blues will get the action underway with that historic first Thursday match, it is followed by two very intriguing Friday matches - the all-New Zealand derby between the Highlanders and Chiefs, as well as the Reds hosting the Sharks in Brisbane.
It is these three match we pay attention to in Part One of our preview!
Thursday, February 23
Melbourne Rebels v Blues
(AAMI Park, Melbourne - Kick-off: 19.45; 21.45 NZ time; 08.45 GMT)
The Melbourne Rebels host the Blues in a game that will give us an early glimpse into their prospects for 2017 - two teams who have promised so much last year, only to drop out the race.
The Blues campaign could hit an early speed bump, with several leading players missing the opening round.
Co-captains Jerome Kaino and James Parson, along with fellow All Black, lock Patrick Tuipulotu, and as expected Sonny Bill Williams, will all miss the Blues' first match.
It is part of the agreement with the New Zealand Rugby Union to 'manage' key All Blacks.
Charlie Faumuina, carrying a leg complaint, George Moala and Rene Ranger have been named to come off a powerful bench - all making graduated returns from injury.
Blues coach Tana Umaga said they are "very happy" with where they are at.
"The group are committed to starting well," he told stuff.co.nz.
"They know there is a lot of competition and a lot of people coming back that have got some reputations so they want to stay where they are.
"We learnt last year the Rebels didn't do so well in the preseason but won three out of their first four games so we're under no illusions how tough it is going to be for us over there."
The Rebels will kick off their seventh Super Rugby season at home for the first time since their 21-point victory over the Cheetahs in 2014.
The previous two years the Rebels have started the year on road to the Crusaders and Western Force respectively.
The Rebels have historically enjoyed their first game of the year - winning their last four season openers against Force (2013), Cheetahs (2014), Crusaders (2015) and Force (2016).
Home field advantage made all the difference in previous encounters between the Blues and Rebels, but will that trend continue in the first Super Rugby clash of 2017?
If history is any guide we can expect a high-scoring affair.
The Blues and Rebels first met on Good Friday in 2011, with the Auckland-based side winning a little more easily on the scoreboard than on the field, as it took a late burst to first secure the bonus point and then pad out the margin to 40-23 in front of a home crowd.
In 2012, the Rebels triumphed 34-23 in Melbourne, but we got our revenge in a try-fest at Eden Park the following year, winning 36-32 and scoring six tries to five.
More recently, the 2015 match against the Rebels was one to forget as the Blues went down 42-22 away from home, and the 36-30 victory last year was one to remember, especially as it was James Parsons' first match as captain.
Both teams scored roughly the same amount of points last season (Blues 374 v Rebels 365) but the Australian side conceded over 100 points more during the course of the season. That's 18 more tries over 15 games, plus conversions.
So expect the Rebels to focus their efforts on containment, as our boys look to light up AAMI Park in Melbourne.
2016: Blues won 36-30, Auckland
2015: Rebels won 42-22, Melbourne
2013: Blues won 36-32, Auckland
2012: Rebels won 34-23, Melbourne
2011: Blues won 40-23, North Harbour
Prediction: The bookmakers may fancy the Blues, but the home factor and depleted Blues line-up make us think the Rebels have more than just an even shot. We suggest the Rebels will win by five points or less.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Jack Debreczeni, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Tom English, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Nic Stirzaker (captain), 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga'a, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Steve Cummins, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Cruze Ah-Nau.
Replacements: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Tom Moloney, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Culum Retallick, 20 Jake Schatz, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Sione Tuipulotu, 23 Jonah Placid.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Jimmy Tupou, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 Matt Moulds, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Sam Nock, 22 George Moala, 23 Rene Ranger
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand), Will Houston (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)
Friday, February 24
Highlanders v Chiefs
(Forsyth Barr Stadium Dunedin - Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT)
The Highlanders start the season with a brand new coaching panel, in contrast to the Chiefs that will be in their last season under Dave Rennie.
Highlanders assistant coach Scott McLeod made it clear the likes of new head coach Tony Brown and forwards coach Mark Hammett will play a key role.
Brown has taken over from Jamie Joseph, now the Japan coach.
"The coaching styles are different," McLeod told the Otago Daily Times.
"That is not a good or a bad thing.
"We just have to find ways to be effective with that.
"Maybe more of us have to step up to do the things that maybe Jamie [Joseph] would have done in the past. And that is a good thing as well.''
The new forwards coach, Hammett, was showing his worth.
"There is a lot of big picture thinking from him and also a lot of details to our forwards.''
The Chiefs mentor, Rennie, does not believe that the changes in the Highlanders coaching panel will make the home team any more vulnerable.
"New Zealand games are so tough and you have good runs against certain sides. Other sides may have the wood on you," Rennie told the Waikato Times.
"Every game we've got into [against the Highlanders], we've been in the arm wrestle and they've been tight affairs.
"We certainly won't be reflecting on history because it really counts for nothing. We certainly won't be going down there without throwing everything at it."
McLeod said pre-season had been different from others for the Highlanders, but he is confident the side is fit and ready to go for Friday's opener.
"It was a different challenge for us in December," the Highlanders' assistant coach said.
"We had 17 guys out and 17 new guys in - with four boys from school, which was really different for us. We have had not had that in the past. We got through that well; the boys put in a great effort,'' he said.
"Lately it has been about integrating our All Blacks back in. It was a large number again and getting them up to play.
"They are getting there. They are available [to play]. For some of them, we just don't think we can play them all at once. So we just have to work out how to manage that and integrate that.''
2016: Highlanders won 25-15, Dunedin
2016: Highlanders won 26-13, Hamilton
2015: Highlanders won 24-14, Dunedin (first round play-offs)
2015: Highlanders won 36-9, Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 20-17, Hamilton
Prediction: The smart money is on the home team and we also think that is a safe bet - the Highlanders to win by about seven points and the Chiefs to get a losing bonus point.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Adrian Smith, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Jackson Hemopo, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (captain), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Mitchell Karpik, 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Samisoni Tuake'iaho, 17 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Reds v Sharks
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - Kick-off: 19.00; 11.00 SA time; 09.00 GMT)
The Sharks can expect 'all-out war' from the Reds when the two sides meet up in their opening 2017 Super Rugby match in a blistering hot Brisbane on Friday.
The Reds have talked themselves up, in the wake of some astute off-season signings - which include Wallaby legend George Smith and veteran Wallaby captain Stephen Moore.
Despite being 36, it is expected Smith's experience - 111 Test caps and almost 150 Super Rugby appearances - will bring that steely resolve that lacked so often in the Reds of recent vintage.
The Reds are determined to improve on last year's 15th place, but so are the Sharks keen on going better than being losing quarterfinalists in 2016.
Sharks backline coach Sean Everitt was under no illusion that the visitors were expecting a "total onslaught" from the Reds.
"They have a transformed squad, headed by a born-and-bred Brisbane man in hooker Stephen Moore [the current Wallabies captain], who has returned home from the Brumbies," Everitt said.
"Then they also have [veteran loose forwards] George Smith and Scott Higginbotham back in Brisbane.
"However, as a backline coach the player I have identified as being a major threat is centre Samu Kerevi."
The giant Fijian (at 108kg and 1.86m) will have an equally physical Andre Esterhuizen (1.94m and 112kg) to contend with in what will be a brutal midfield battle.
Another appetising contest will be between Pat Lambie and Quade Cooper, the respective flyhalves.
Everitt said that captain Patrick Lambie has been walking around with a smile on his face all tour.
"He has mentioned that he has not made a Sharks Super Rugby tour since 2013 because of injury," Everitt said, adding: "He is just so pleased to be here and the players are feeding off his enthusiasm. He is a really popular captain.
"We know how clever Cooper can be, and he has a new scrumhalf partner in Nick Frisby [succeeding Will Genia], who has a beautiful pass, so we have to get up quickly on defence [to shut down Cooper and Kerevi]."
2015: Sharks won 21-14, Brisbane
2014: Sharks won 35-20, Durban
2013: Reds won 32-17, Brisbane
2012: Sharks won 30-17, Brisbane (first round play-offs)
2012: Sharks won 27-22, Durban
Prediction: Home ground advantage and a massive off-season recruitment drive mean there is justification in making the Reds six-point favourites. However, we believe it will be much closer and a late Pat Lambie penalties will win it for the Sharks.
Reds: 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Chris Kuridrani, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 George Smith, 6 Adam Korczyk, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 James Slipper (captain).
Replacements: 16 Andrew Ready, 17 Markus Vanzati, 18 Sef Fa'agase, 19 Izack Rodda, 20 Hendrik Tui, 21 James Tuttle, 22 Jake McIntyre, 23 Izaia Perese.
Sharks: 15 Curwin Bosch, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie (captain), 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Lubabalo Mtembu, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Stephan Lewies, 20 Jacques Vermeulen, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Jeremy Ward, 23 Clement Poitrenaud.
Compiled by Jan de Koning