Super Rugby is back! After one of the shorter offseasons in recent memory, southern hemisphere provincial action recommences from Dunedin and Canberra on Friday, while five more games follow across the weekend.
There are a number of storylines to follow, particularly given the presence of the Rugby World Cup later in the year.
Read on as we take a look at some of the key talking points for Round 1.
Daryl Gibson made a point of bolstering his squad late in the preseason with the acquisition of Adam Ashley-Cooper, Le Roux Roets and Karmichael Hunt. With Wallabies rest weeks to negotiate, and knowing the key injuries his side suffered late in 2018, it looks a sound decision; albeit one that came with a few raised eyebrows when Hunt was unveiled.
The Waratahs coach hasn't shied away from throwing the veteran backs in at the deep-end either, selecting them as his centre pairing for the Waratahs' opener against the Hurricanes at Lottoland, aka Brookvale Oval, on Saturday night.
The selection of Hunt at inside centre allows Gibson to give Kurtley Beale another week's rest after a season in which he played the most minutes of any Waratahs player. That workload started to show towards the end of the year, too, as Beale's impact declined at Test level before he was left out of the season finale at Twickenham after breaking team protocol.
While Beale puts the feet up on the sidelines of what is expected to be a full Brookvale Oval, the first-up outing represents a real opportunity for both Hunt and Ashley-Cooper to show their utility value. It will be stern test of both their attacking and defensive abilities, as the Hurricanes combination of Ngani Laumape and Matt Proctor is among the most dynamic of any in Super Rugby.
Hunt's on- and off-field battles of the past two years are well known. Slapped with a four-game ban and a $10,000 fine following a second drug offence, Reds coach Brad Thorn showed no interest in bringing him back to Ballymore in 2018 as he stuck solid to a hardline stance on off-field behaviour.
Ashley-Cooper's situation is largely different, save for a small misdemeanour in Cardiff last year. Recalled to the Wallabies touring squad, Ashley-Cooper impressed on the wing against Italy in proving, at age 34, he still had something to offer the national side.
But the caveat to that is the fact it was against Italy, a side whose world ranking has slumped to No. 15 and for whom future Six Nations inclusion continues to be hotly debated.
What can Hunt and Ashley-Cooper offer against virtual Test quality opposition? Can they defend the hard-running Laumape and keep the incisive Proctor at bay? And what do they have from an attacking point-of-view: Can Hunt offer a more direct line of distribution? Does Ashley-Cooper still have the same left-foot step that helped sealed the Waratahs a maiden title five years ago?
And do these oldish dogs have any new tricks? What can they show Cheika, new Director of Rugby, Scott Johnson, and a yet-to-be-announced third Test selector that makes them worthy of Wallabies inclusion?
No opportunity can be wasted, and the veteran duo have been given one straight out of the blocks.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Can Ma'a Nonu really return to an All Blacks midfield already chock full of talent? That's certainly the 36-year-old centre's goal, and one that begins when he runs out with the Blues in Auckland on Saturday night.
It's been four years since Nonu waved goodbye to the competition -- seemingly at the time for good -- as the Hurricanes' hopes of a maiden Super Rugby title were derailed by the Highlanders in a gripping decider at the Cake Tin. Nonu, of course, went on to lift the Rugby World Cup crown later in 2015, before skipping over to France thereafter.
But he was unable to drive any success at Toulon with the club's best result across his tenure being a 22-16 loss to Clermont in the 2017 Top 14 final. He could have called it quits after last season, or bumped up the retirement fund with a couple of seasons in Japan, but to his credit, Nonu believes he still has some good rugby to play; so why shouldn't he be in contention?
"I think it's there on everyone's minds," Nonu said of the prospect of a Test recall. "For me it's trying to make the Blues team first, so one step at a time."
The latter has already been taken care of, with Nonu named to start alongside TJ Faiane in a Blues backline that also features the world's best winger, Rieko Ioane, while Otere Black will finally make his club debut after missing the entirety of last season through injury.
The big-name omission from that trio is Sonny Bill Williams, who will instead return via the bench after a frustrating 2018 with injury himself. Nonu and Williams are likely to form a centre pairing for the Blues at some point in the season, and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will no doubt be a keen spectator.
But the reality is that Hansen is awash with options in the midfield. At the start of last season, you would have said that Williams and Ryan Crotty were the front-runners but the rapid rise of Jack Goodhue, return to form of Ngani Laumape and the consistent Anton Lienert-Brown, make the selection anything but straight-forward.
Nonu may prove that he still has something to offer, but age certainly isn't on his side. There's one way to make that issue irrelevant, though, and that's to come out and run straight over the top of Crotty and Braydon Ennor at Eden Park on Saturday evening, reminding the All Blacks selectors that he is anything but a spent force.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
The Lions open their campaign to reach a fourth consecutive Super Rugby final, and hoping to claim a first title, in their biggest bogey town. Three times they have faced the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, and three times they have lost. That record includes the defeat in 2016 -- after then coach Johan Ackerman's decision to send a second-string XV in order to keep the A-Team fresh for the quarterfinals the following week -- that ultimately cost the Lions home-ground advantage against the Hurricanes in the decider. A jet-lagged team might not have beaten the Crusaders and then the Highlanders to make the final, of course, but still we wonder how history might have changed had the regular starters travelled to Argentina.
Enough of the history lesson and the pondering; stronger Lions teams lost at Estadio Jose Amalfitani in 2017 and 2018, and this fixture, surely one of the glamour ties of Round 1, featuring as it does two genuine playoffs contenders that look to play adventurously with ball in hand, is about more than the Lions' ability to win on the other side of the South Atlantic.
The Lions travel with the majority of pundits perhaps expecting them to win the South African conference again, but with a sizable number, including ESPN's Greg Growden, believing this will be the Jaguares' year; and in what seems to be an incredibly even conference, each and every game will be vital with the teams expected to take points from each other. And the Lions travel also without Franco Mostert, around whom much of the best of their play revolved last season - he has left to rejoin Ackerman at Gloucester in the Gallagher Premiership, and many eyes will be on Rhyno Herbset to see if and how the 22-year-old lock can replace the injured Stephan Lewies in filling their predecessor's shoes. Lewies, who has a minor pectoral tear, is a key absentee, as is Kwagga Smith, who misses with a calf strain.
For all that Mostert has left, and that Lewies and Smith are injured, the Lions still have Malcolm Marx, who, along with Smith, won more turnovers than anyone else in Super Rugby last season (27 and 31, respectively); their set-pieces look sure to be tremendous again, and they're driving maul is unlikely to be less than devastating again. Their back-row named on Tuesday also looks dynamic, despite missing Smith and Cyle Brink, who is still recovering from a knee injury sustained last August; we know all about captain Warren Whiteley at No.8, but No. 7 Hacjivah Dayimani also likes to play wide, while openside Marnus Schoeman notably scored six tries in 452 minutes on the pitch last season.
Behind the pack, Elton Jantjies, Aphiwe Dyanti and Andries Coetzee remain as game-breakers and match-winners and it's hard to think the visitors won't score points in this fixture. But have they tightened their defence, which was disappointing last season? And have they added subtlety, and perhaps an element of a kicking game, to their oftentimes one-dimensional attacking plan? Good questions, both, and we look forward to seeing some answers.
The Jaguares, meanwhile, might feel the pressure to make a winning start to the campaign, as they open with three home fixtures in which they should be favoured, with the Bulls and the Blues to come after the Lions. Last season, they lost their opening three fixtures, and five of their opening seven, so they were on the backfoot thereafter. They produced a tremendous seven-match winning run to get into the finals for the first time, but they'll be desperate this year for early momentum.
The hosts also have questions to answer as they seek that momentum, primarily can they adequately replace the hugely influential but departed Nicolas Sanchez at fly-half, and can they add a scoring threat up front. Much as their pick-and-drive game that builds phases is impressive, and delightful to watch, one of the most interesting stats of 2018 was this: Jaguares forwards scored just nine tries while their wingers, most notably Emiliano Boffelli and Bautista Delguy, scored 27 of the team's season's total of 53; compare that with the Lions, whose wingers also tallied 27 tries but whose forwards posted a competition-leading 42. Perhaps the Lions weren't so one-dimensional after all.
Still, the Jaguares displayed plenty of panache recently in dismissing a badly outmatched Uruguay 61-0 in Montevideo in front of 10,000 spectators, and they have won eight of their past 10 games at home against South African opposition - including their last four, in which they've scored an average 39 points per game. This could be a barn-burner that wraps up in the opening round with a bow on top.