The Super Rugby season is once again upon us, with a full round of fixtures set down for the opening weekend of competition from February 15.
Here, we analyse the Australia conference and ESPN columnist Greg Growden offers his thoughts on each of the country's five franchises.
Coach: Dan McKellar
Captain: Christian Leali'ifano
Last year: The Brumbies were one of the form teams at the end of the regular season, it was just a pity they took so long to get going. Dan McKellar tried to oversee an overhaul of the team's attacking framework after Stephen Larkham's departure, which, given recent events, may have been a far bigger task than what he first envisaged. The Brumbies lost eight of their first 11 games, including five on the trot between rounds nine and 14, but rumbled home with four victories from their last five as well as a narrow defeat away to the Chiefs. It was as if something suddenly clicked for the two-time champions; Tom Banks, in particular, finally finding space in which to work. David Pocock was tireless throughout the season, but missed multiple games through a worrying neck injury. He was the target of countless dubious clean-outs.
This year: While concerns around Pocock's neck remain, the Brumbies should enter 2019 excited by what lies ahead. If they can pick up from where they left off in 2018, then they will be right in what looks like being the toughest Australian conference to call in years. An already Test-strength pack has been boosted by the arrival of Pete Samu and James Slipper, while former Chiefs flyer Tony Pulu and Manly NRL recruit Tom Wright offer further backline cover. But McKellar's biggest challenge will be getting the best out of his halves. Does that mean a return to fly-half for Christian Leali'ifano? Can Wharenui Hawera finally step up and direct the team from week to week, or can one of Mack Hansen, Bayley Kuenzle or Jordan Jackson-Hope emerge as the missing link that has plagued the Brumbies since Matt Toomua's departure. The ACT franchise's season rests on it, as there is too much quality elsewhere for this team not to contend.
Draw: Rebels (H), Chiefs (H), Hurricanes (A), Rebels (A), Waratahs (H), Reds (A), BYE, Crusaders (A), Lions (H), Stormers (A), Jaguares (A), Blues (H), Sunwolves (H), Bulls (H), Sunwolves (A), Waratahs (A), Reds (H).
Greg Growden says: The Brumbies, particularly their coaching staff, don't like it when told the obvious truth -- that in recent years their team have been absolute bores, producing weeks of stodgy, predictable football. Hope they pick their act up in 2019, but it appears unlikely as their squad is pretty pedestrian, even with the arrival of Pete Samu and James Slipper.
Predicted conference finish: Third
Coach: Dave Wessels
Captain: Dane Haylett-Petty
Last year: Just when it looked like the Rebels were set for their first ever finals appearance, they completely imploded in losing their last three games. It must be said that they mustered an admirable final effort away to the Highlanders in the final round, but were left to lament poor losses to the Reds and Waratahs the two weeks prior. Before that, however, the Rebels had enjoyed a solid first season under Dave Wessels. While Reece Hodge didn't exactly set things alight at No. 10, Will Genia's presence added another dimension to their attack and certainly added greater game plan management. Jack Maddocks, meanwhile, announced himself as a player with Test quality but they were also badly hit by injury as Genia, skipper Adam Coleman, Dane Haylett-Petty and hooker Jordan Uelese all missed multiple weeks through injury. The biggest dampener on their season however was an ugly incident between Lopeti Timani and Japanese star Amanaki Mafi in Dunedin. Both men have since departed the club.
This year: The standout name on the Rebels' arrivals list is clearly one Quade Cooper, but it's Isi Naisarani and Matt Toomua who loom as the more important recruits. Toomua won't hit Melbourne until after his commitments with English club Leicester wrap up, but now Wallabies-eligible Naisarani will be there to carry through the middle of the paddock from the outset. He is the perfect on-field replacement for Mafi, and won't be any trouble off it, either. However, the Rebels' biggest improvement must come on defence after they conceded 40 points or more on four occasions last season; shore up that side of their game and they will likely make up for last year's missed opportunity. A youthful, determined pack must lay the platform for a backline that can have Wallabies from 9-15.
Draw: Brumbies (A), BYE, Highlanders (H), Brumbies (H), Lions (A), Sharks (A), Reds (A), Sunwolves (H), Stormers (H), Waratahs (A), Hurricanes (A), Reds (H), Bulls (H), Sunwolves (A), Waratahs (), Crusaders (A), Chiefs (H).
Greg Growden says: Dave Wessels is treated as the golden boy of the next best Australian coaches, for reasons unknown. He has been blessed by good squads but hasn't produced much. This year, he can't complain about having Matt Toomua and Quade Cooper in a backline that also includes Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty, Jack Maddocks and Marika Koroibete. Improvement is inevitable; otherwise Wessels will continue being an also-ran. The return of lock Luke Jones also helps his cause. No excuses.
Predicted conference finish: Second
Coach: Brad Thorn
Captain: Samu Kerevi
Last year: It was a year of transition north of the border as Brad Thorn cast off some dead weight and those who couldn't do right by the club away from the field. It was always going to make it a tough year as Thorn tried to bring through a new generation of talent that lacked the experience and durability to perform week in, week out. But there were several highlights, not least of which was a win over eventual finalists, the Lions, in Brisbane. A rugged triumph over the Jaguares in Buenos Aires and the continued development of Taniela Tupou, Jordan Petaia and talented fly-half, Hamish Stewart added to the list of positives. However, they mixed that with a number horrible defensive displays on the road, which reflected the learning curve the young Reds were on. What can't have helped was the constant Quade Cooper chat, with Thorn forced to defence his absence for much of the season.
This year: His blueprint for success now a year older, Thorn may not be afforded as much grace as he looks for greater consistency in 2019. Although he will be better for having wiped the off-field slate clean - see the exits of Cooper, Karmichael Hunt and James Slipper - and having doubled down on more young blood alongside the added x-factor of Sefa Naivalu and the addition of former Blues fly-half Matt McGahan. The Reds again look set to rely on their ability to grind out wins, a solid set-piece and Thorn's no-frills approach to improve upon their six-win season of last year. They will be tested by Wallabies rest weeks, despite not boasting as much top-line talent as the Waratahs, Brumbies and Rebels, with Tupou, Petaia, Izack Rodda, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, skipper Samu Kerevi and hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa all likely to sit out two games. What won't make matters any easier is an opening run that sees them face the Highlanders and Waratahs away, and Crusaders at home, following the Round 1 bye.
Draw: BYE, Highlanders (A), Crusaders (H), Waratahs (A), Sunwolves (A), Brumbies (H), Rebels (H), Stormers (H), Bulls (A), Sharks (A), Sunwolves (H), Rebels (A), Waratahs (H), Chiefs (A), Jaguares (H), Blues (H), Brumbies (A).
Greg Growden says: Brad Thorn has got his way and shoved out those who didn't fit in with his tough love regime, such as Quade Cooper and Karmichael Hunt. You must admire his brazen approach, but Thorn also must show that like any good coach he can recruit. That's the area where the Reds have again fallen down. He's plucked a few reasonable names, but nothing startling. They'll win a few, but won't threaten.
Predicted conference finish: Fourth
Coach: Tony Brown
Last year: More suited to the easier Australian conference, and a less demanding travel schedule, the Sunwolves enjoyed their best season yet. That still only resulted in three wins, two in Tokyo and the other Hong Kong, but they showed far more resolve in general to only be beaten by 40 or more on two occasions - one of which came as a result of dubious red card. Kiwi coach Tony Brown did well to recruit countryman Hayden Parker, Michael Little and others; Parker's match-winning field goal to sink the Stormers one of the highlights of the season. The Sunwolves were never involved in a dud match, showing a willingness to throw the ball around as is the Japanese style, earning them fans across the competition.
This year: Brown has continued his overseas recruitment drive, adding the likes of Rene Ranger, Phil Burleigh, Dan and Kara Pryor, and Pauliasi Manu, among others, to an already Kiwi-heavy squad. Some may see that as overkill but Brown obviously sees it as a way of making the Sunwolves more competitive on a week-to-week basis, and then there's the uneasy ecosystem that exists between the Japanese Rugby Union, the Top League clubs and the Sunwolves. In short, the Super franchise aren't everyone's cup of tea. What looms is a season similar to 2018, but one that should continue a slight upward trend. The four Australian teams look a little stronger but the Sunwolves should fancy themselves at home against at least a couple of them, while they have already shown they know how to beat South African franchises.
Draw: Sharks (H), Waratahs (H), Chiefs (A), Blues (A), Reds (H), Lions (H), Waratahs (A), Rebels (A), BYE, Hurricanes (H), Highlanders (H), Reds (A), Brumbies (A), Rebels (H), Brumbies (H), Stormers (A), Jaguares (A).
Greg Growden says: They have little idea of how to win games, but at least did try to entertain in 2018, producing several unexpected and rousing attacking performances. But their serious lack of depth, especially up front, is always going to work against them. They'll probably be inspired by Japan hosting the World Cup this year, but that won't see them advancing too far up the ladder. Even with eight new New Zealand provincial players in the squad, expect another year at the bottom.
Predicted conference finish: Fifth
Coach: Daryl Gibson
Captain: Michael Hooper
Last year: A semifinal exit was about what the Waratahs deserved as they produced scintillating rugby and inexcusably simple errors in almost equal measures. They were woeful against the Lions, Blues and Brumbies at home, but mixed that with two wins over the Highlanders and a sweep of their other seven Australian conference games. But perhaps the best reflection of the Waratahs' season was the wild scenes that unfolded in Christchurch when they romped to a 29-0 lead inside 30 minutes, only to suffer an almighty collapse and lose 32-29 to the Crusaders. They weren't far off a return to Christchurch for the final when locked at 19-all with the Lions at halftime of their semifinal, but they couldn't muster any sort of resistance in the second stanza and thus the curtain came down on their season. Off field, they were forced to negotiate Israel Folau's anti-gay social media commentary while they certainly missed Michael Hooper after he was injured during the June Test window.
This year: It's all about "depth" for Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson in 2019, as he seeks to plug the holes that saw his team go to water at various times throughout last season. There's also the fact he has more than 10 Wallabies who will need to sit out two rest weeks, and thus the recent additions of South African Le Roux Roets, and veteran backs Karmichael Hunt and Ashley-Cooper. There's no doubting the Waratahs have the attacking arsenal to mix it with the best Super Rugby has to offer, but defensively there is a need for significant improvement. The Waratahs finished mid-table in terms of tackling percentage, although as Gibson has already alluded to, it was more the nature of their misses that was most frustrating; film of some efforts from their final regular-season match last year can't have made for pleasant viewing. The Waratahs are taking their home games to four different venues while Allianz Stadium is rebuilt; the SCG, Brookvale Oval, MacDonald Jones Stadium and the new Western Sydney Stadium. After years of saying they represent the State, the Waratahs actions at last speak louder than their words. They have the squad to contend and a reasonable draw, but similar situations have been blown before.
Draw: Hurricanes (H), Sunwolves (A), Reds (H), Brumbies (A), Crusaders (H), Sunwolves (H), Blues (A), Rebels (H), BYE, Sharks (H), Bulls (A), Lions (A), Reds (A), Jaguares (H), Rebels (A), Brumbies (H), Highlanders (A).
Greg Growden says: The Waratahs' season could go either way. By recruiting bad boys Karmichael Hunt and Adam Ashley-Cooper to join serial offender Kurtley Beale, the Tahs have one of the best attacks in the competition, but if there are any more off-field mishaps the year could be an unmitigated disaster. If they pull their heads in, the Waratahs should at least win the conference stage. Then it will be up to Daryl Gibson to show he can actually coach.
Predicted conference finish: First