Preview: Super Rugby, Round Two - Part One
THE REAL DEAL: Last week was an appetiser. The competition starts for real this week.
After the teaser with two matches in the South African conference last week, Round Two sees 14 teams in action - the Sharks have a bye.
Friday present us with two tantalising derbies - the Highlanders hosting the Blues and the Rebels at home to the Reds, with three of the teams starting a new era under the guidance of much-changed coaching structures.
We look at Round Two's Friday matches!
Friday, February 23
Highlanders v Blues
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin - Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT)
The Highlanders will look to new coach Aaron Mauger to take them back to their 2015 heights.
They already have some 'significant' silverware on the showcase - the Highlanders beating the Crusaders 42-26 in their final pre-season pouting to claim the Farmland Cup.
The added spice to what is always an entertaining derby is that the Gordon Hunter Trophy - currently held by the Highlanders - is up for grabs.
Mauger said the team was looking forward to its first outing.
"For us, this game is an opportunity for the players to put a performance on the park," he told the Otago Daily Times.
"Throughout the pre-season, we have had a real focus on producing a performance that we and our supporters can be proud of.
"It's great we have the opening match at our home ground for the Gordon Hunter Trophy; it gives us a really good opportunity to connect with our people."
Blues coach Tana Umaga said his team is "excited" to get the season underway.
"I'm pleased with the attitude and application from our players in pre-season," Umaga said in an interview on the Blues website.
"We continued to improve last year but we know that we need to do better against our fellow New Zealand teams, especially with two full derby rounds this year, and also deliver on those key moments in what is going to be a very tight and tough season.
"We have a few players with longer-term injuries, and some with lesser injuries that could have possibly played if pushed, but this is a long season and player welfare is really important."
A crowd of about 16,000 is expected to roll up for the first game of the Super Rugby season in New Zealand. About 12,000 tickets had already been sold by Wednesday and it is expected another 4000 will be sold.
2017: Highlanders won 26-20, Dunedin
2017: Highlanders won 16-12, Auckland
2016: Blues won 33-31, Auckland
2015: Highlanders won 44-7, Auckland
2015: Highlanders won 30-24, Dunedin
Prediction: The Highlanders have won eight of their last 11 games against the Blues, and will be looking for a third consecutive win against them for the first time since 2003. The Blues have been defeated in each of their last five away games against the Highlanders; however, they've picked up three losing bonus points in that span. The last time the Highlanders opened a Super Rugby campaign with a victory was in 2014, when they picked up a 29-21 win at home against the Blues. The Blues have now gone 11 games without a win against New Zealand opposition, their longest ever drought against their countrymen. Ben Smith has scored eight tries in his last eight games against the Blues, including four in his last three games against them. So much uncertainty for a derby that is more often than not a very tight affair. We will go with a Highlanders win, by five points.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Augustine Pulu (captain), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Glenn Preston, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Michael Tamoaieta, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Sione Havili/Antonio Kiri Kiri, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 23 Melani Nanai.
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Rebels v Reds
(AAMI Park, Melbourne - Kick-off: 19.40; 08.40 GMT)
The merging of two sides - the Rebels and the Western Force - means expectations are exceptionally high.
The Reds have their own reasons for increased expectations - new coach Brad Thorn.
Aussie derbies, generally, are dour affairs - or to put it more subtly, arm-wrestles.
New Rebels coach Dave Wessels spoke of preparing for a "confrontational game".
"We expect the Reds to be physical and fit," the South African said.
"Our aim is pretty simple - no matter what the outcome, we want to make the people of Melbourne proud through the commitment and intensity of our performances.
"The players we've picked have earned the opportunity to represent us against the Reds through their hard work, commitment and consistent intensity over the pre-season."
The Reds' new coach, Thorn, said there is "a lot of excitement" within the group.
"Pre-season was a tough slog, but we were pleased with the work. Now it's time for the real thing," the legendary former All Black lock said.
"For the coaches, the pleasing thing is it wasn't an easy task to select this first team.
"There was a lot of competition for spots, everyone had to fight to earn a place in the team.
"There are a few guys in line to make their debut on Friday and that's always a special time. What's important is that we make it a memorable one for them."
2017: Reds won 29-24, Melbourne
2016: Rebels won 31-28, Brisbane
2016: Rebels won 25-23, Melbourne
2015: Reds won 46-29, Brisbane
2015: Rebels won 23-15, Melbourne
Prediction: Each of the last three games between these teams has been decided by a margin of no greater than five points, with the Rebels picking up two wins in that span. The Rebels have won four of their last five season openers, though they were trounced 56-18 by the Blues in Round 1 last year. The Reds have won just one of their last 16 games away from home; however, that win came against the Rebels in Round 12 last season. The Rebels scored just 16 points per game last season, the fewest of any team in the competition and five fewer per game than the Reds. New Rebels signing Geoff Parling (who played all three Lions Tests versus Australia in 2013) won a team high 90 line-outs for Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs last season. It is the astute off-season recruiting of the Rebels against the youthful enthusiasm of the new-look Reds. Experience should triumph - the Rebels by 12 points.
Rebels: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Tom English, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Sefa Naivalu, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Will Genia, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Angus Cottrell, 6 Lopeti Timani, 5 Adam Coleman (captain), 4 Matt Philip, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Jordan Uelese, 1 Tetera Faulkner.
Replacements: 16 Anaru Rangi, 17 Fereti Sa'aga, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Ross Haylett-Petty, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Semisi Tupou, 23 Billy Meakes.
Reds: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Jono Lance, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Scott Higginbotham (captain), 7 Adam Korczyk, 6 Caleb Timu, 5 Lukhan Tui, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 James Slipper
Replacements: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 JP Smith, 18 Sef Fa'agase, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Liam Wright, 21 Tate McDermott, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Filipo Daugunu
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nicholas Berry (Australia), Jordan Way (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports