Super Rugby return: Why there's cause for excitement four weeks out

Ma'a Nonu trains with the Blues in Auckland ahead of his Super Rugby return, December 18, 2018 Phil Walter/Getty Images

We're a month out from Super Rugby. Find that hard to believe? Yep, us, too.

But given the presence of a little tournament called the Rugby World Cup come September, the rest of the rugby season is pushed just a little bit further forward. For Super Rugby, that means a February 15 start when the Chiefs host the Highlanders in Hamilton.

The reality is, the kick-off has only actually been bumped forward a few days while the late-season break for the June series is gone, which means a continuous run of Super Rugby action right through the final on July 6.

Excited yet? It's not easy, particularly when you consider parts of Australia nudged more than 40 degrees this week and February can hit similar heights, too. Not exactly conditions conducive to playing a contact sport, right?

But there is an argument to be made why this season has the ingredients to be the best of the last few years, a prospect that could not be more timely given the general dissatisfaction that has surrounded the once-mighty southern hemisphere tournament.

And it's not just because players from all five participating countries will be playing for World Cup spots, either.

Let's start with the returns. In the Blue corner we have Ma'a Nonu, the legendary All Blacks centre returning home for one last crack at a Super Rugby title. He came so close in 2015 with the Hurricanes, only to see one of his two former teams, the Highlanders, come to the Cake Tin and be the team tasting the icing 80 minutes later.

Nonu has found his way up the North Island for a third stint in Auckland with the Blues, only this time he will reprise an All Blacks midfield combination with Sonny Bill Williams and have Rieko Ioane one spot further wider. It might be a stretch for the Blues to win it, but won't it be marvellous having Ma'a back?

In the red, err navy blue, corner, is Quade Cooper. Remember him? He's the guy who was paid a hefty sum to play among the sausage sizzles and XXXX tinnies of Brisbane Premier Rugby in 2018, after Queensland coach Brad Thorn declared Cooper wasn't part of his plans during the preseason.

The former All Blacks lock stuck to his guns, and Cooper wasn't sighted at Suncorp all season.

Enter Dave Wessels. With Rugby Australia helping to facilitate discussions -- ensuring one of its biggest investments wasn't left to practice his goal-kicking for Instagram purposes alone -- Cooper was thrown a lifeline by the Rebels and has been down in Melbourne since late last year.

He's reunited with his little mate Will Genia in a backline that will also include Reece Hodge, Jack Maddocks, Marika Koroibete and, later in the year, Matt Toomua.

If a couple of high-profile returns don't do it for you -- a shout-out to Duane Vermeulen, too, who is back in Super Rugby with the Bulls -- then what about some new kids on the block? At the top of that list is 22-year-old Brett Cameron who has as many Crusaders games as he does All Blacks Tests: one. Plucked from the Mitre 10 Cup after a strong season with Canterbury, Cameron got a taste of Test rugby against the Brave Blossoms in Tokyo.

He is the latest of a string of talented Crusaders five-eighths and while he will play second fiddle to Richie Mo'unga, NZ Rugby-enforced rest breaks could have the Canterbury pivot in line for a couple of starts in 2019.

Then there's Etene Nanai-Seturo whom you may have already seen lighting up the Sevens World Series for New Zealand. The subject of a tug-o-war between rugby and rugby league, Nanai-Seturo is contracted to the Chiefs and is the cousin of former club favourite Tim Nanai-Williams, so you know the pedigree is there.

Australia might be short on eye-catching newcomers but keep your eyes peeled for Reds back-rower Fraser McReight. The Queenslander was named Australia's Under 20 Player of the Year for 2018 after a stellar Junior World Championship campaign and may be the latest cab of the nation's always long openside rank.

What of the coaches, then? Well, John Plumtree is finally in charge of the Canes; Leon MacDonald has gone to Auckland where Tana Umaga was given a demotion, of sorts; the coaching merry-go-round continues in Pretoria where Pote Human has the clipboard and who knows where the man with Midas touch, Scott Robertson, will be in 2020? The All Blacks are looking unlikely, so Europe might be the destination. Can he make it three from three with the Crusaders first?

And don't forget neck rolls, aerial contests, judiciary meetings, high tackles, tip tackles, shoulder charges, the deliberate knock-down law, the rolling maul law (s), the TMO, yellow cards, red cards and ... injuries.

Unfortunately, someone will miss the World Cup as a result of an injury in Super Rugby. There could be one, two, three, four or more players who miss the plane to Japan as a result of nothing more than rotten luck. But that's what makes the World Cup so special, they only roll around once every four years. And those players with a chance of making it to Japan know the best way to do just that is to perform in Super Rugby.

So sit back, relax and enjoy what's left of your summer break, if anything; take in some tennis and the final few cricket Tests, ODIs and T20 fixtures.

But be mindful Super Rugby is just around the corner and when the time feels right for you, embrace the tingles. The competition might have its issues, and be on the brink of a restructure, but there are just a few things to whet the appetite ... even four weeks out from kick-off.