The 2013 Super Rugby season kicks off this weekend with two Australian derby matches while the New Zealand and South African teams start next weekend.
The Melbourne Rebels and Perth-based Western Force will meet on Friday and the Brumbies and Reds on Saturday in a truncated opening round designed to create space later in the season for the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia.
As well as this weekend's Australia only rounds there are rounds later in June and July which feature only the South African and New Zealand teams and a round with only Australian teams.
The Reds were the only Australian team to reach the playoffs last year while the Brumbies missed the top-six by a point.
The Rebels and Force finished 13th and 14th respectively, trailing the 11th-placed Waratahs, who have a bye in the opening round.
The match between the Brumbies and Reds might help determine which Australian team will most strongly challenge for the Super Rugby crown this season.
The mystery of whether the Waratahs will improve enough under new head coach Michael Chieka to challenge those teams in the Australian conference will not be addressed until they play the Reds in their opening match on Feb. 22.
Comparisons between Australian teams and those in other conferences won't begin until round three when the Reds play the Hurricanes.
The first round should at least shed light on the progress the Australian teams have made since last season when the Reds were laid low by injuries after winning the title in 2011
Last year the Brumbies improved under South African coach Jake Whit ebut the Rebels and Force were never on the pace.
The Brumbies ended their 2012 season with a surprise loss to the struggling Blues which was enough to exclude them from the playoffs.
Wallabies flanker and former captain David Pocock will make his debut for the Brumbies on Saturday, adding to the team's experience and leadership.
"He's had a huge role in the direction of the team already," Mowen said.
Prop James Slipper will captain the Reds in the absence of James Horwill and Will Genia, both still recovering from injuries.
"We have a lot of leaders at the Reds and I'd like to think we are all on an equal plane," Slipper said. "Most of the decisions will make themselves.
Former Wales international Gareth Delve will captain the Melbourne Rebels this season and says the team's opening games will tell whether they will be competitive this season.
"This month will really show where we stand," Delve said.
Here we take a quick look at all fifteen Super Rugby teams.
SUPER RUGBY TEAMS
Coach: John Kirwan
Captain: Ali Williams
Stadium: Eden Park
Best finish: Champions (1996, 1997, 2003)
The Blues' best years ended when they last won the championship a decade ago and new coach John Kirwan is not promising an immediate turnaround.
Kirwan is starting from scratch and has signed 16 new players - of whom 11 have never played Super rugby before - while losing two of the Blues veteran All Blacks, Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu, who have departed for the Highlanders.
Ali Williams, who has struggled with injury in recent years, has been trusted with the captaincy and the vital role of assisting with the rebuilding of team morale.
Williams, Anthony Boric and Keven Mealamu bring a wealth of international experience to the pack, but in the backs there is a distinct green tinge outside scrum-half Piri Weepu. The pivotal fly-half role is being shared by Chris Noakes and Baden Kerr.
Coach: Jake White
Captain: Ben Mowen
Stadium: Canberra Stadium
Best finish: Champions (2001, 2004)
Under former World Cup-winning Springboks coach Jake White, the Brumbies narrowly failed to win last season's Australian conference and a place in the play-offs with a final-round loss to the Blues.
The Brumbies have bolstered their squad with the addition of Wallabies' star flanker David Pocock from Western Force and South African lock Etienne Oosthuizen, while former Wallaby back Clyde Rathbone has come out of a three-year retirement.
White has also recruited former National Rugby League coach Brian Smith as the team's defence coach.
The Brumbies have a core of experience with Wallabies Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander and Pat McCabe and some exciting young talent in Matt Toomua, Joseph Tomane, Henry Speight and Christian Lealiifano.
The White influence should have the Brumbies among Australia's leading challengers for the Super Rugby title.
Coach: Frans Ludeke
Captain: Pierre Spies
Stadium: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Best finish: Champions (2007, 2009, 2010)
Made the play-offs last season with a transitional team after the loss of legends such as retired Victor Matfield and transferred Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez, but were found wanting away to Crusaders.
The lure of the euro will further deplete the Bulls' stocks at the end of the 2013 campaign with fly-half Morne Steyn and lock Juandre Kruger off to France on lucrative contracts.
Much is expected of centre Jan Serfontein, captain of the 2012 Junior World Cup-winning team while scrum-half Francois Hougaard needs to recapture the form shown as an impact player at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
While a fourth title this season might appear to be beyond the Bulls, they will hope Steyn regains the world-class goal-kicking form that deserted him last year, and a top-six finish and a place in the play-offs is a realistic expectation.
Coach: Naka Drotske
Captain: Adriaan Strauss
Stadium: Free State, Bloemfontein
Best finish: 10th (2006, 2010, 2012)
Often the most entertaining South African side as they favour keeping the ball in hand and have elusive runners, but a sometimes non-existent defence means they consistently finish in the bottom half of the table.
They boast a superb goal-kicker in young Springbok Johan Goosen, who was the leading points scorer in 2012 until a mid-season shoulder injury sidelined him for the rest of the competition.
Giant Ghana-born left-wing Raymond Rhule is set to make his debut after an outstanding first season in the domestic Currie Cup, scoring numerous tries through pace and power.
Hooker Adriaan Strauss and utility prop Coenie Oosthuizen are the pick of a pack that has lost veteran No. 8 Juan Smith, who retired this week after being crocked just two games into a comeback from a two-year injury absence.
Coach: Dave Rennie
Co-captains: Craig Clarke, Liam Messam
Stadium: Waikato Stadium
Best finish: Champions (2012)
The one glaring omission in an otherwise stable Chiefs line-up is Sonny Bill Williams, whose exceptional offloads and stout defence will be sorely missed as he returns to rugby league.
Otherwise, the Chiefs are very much the same line-up that started last year as outsiders, because of a relatively unknown tight five, and ended the season as surprise champions.
Their gains include the return of All Blacks wing Richard Kahui, who was sidelined by injury last year, and former Blues pivot Gareth Anscombe.
The Chiefs' strength lies in a tireless work ethic in the forwards, led by co-captains Liam Messam and Craig Clarke, and the play-making skills of scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
Another key ingredient is the tactical nous of assistant coach and former All Blacks mentor Wayne Smith, who produced a backline with flair on attack and a formidable defence.
Coach: Todd Blackadder
Captain: Kieran Read
Stadium: AMI Stadium
Best finish: Champions (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008)
The best-performing franchise in Super rugby history again start as the New Zealand team to beat even though they have gone four years without the trophy.
Although they remain stacked with All Blacks, they have been hit hard by Richie McCaw deciding to sit out the season, Ben Franks defecting to the Hurricanes and Zac Guildford standing down to resolve personal issues.
Coach Todd Blackadder made no big-name player signings in the off-season but he did bring in former All Black Aaron Mauger as assistant coach to freshen up their attacking options.
The Crusaders should again be in the play-off mix but their chances of regaining the crown will depend on senior players Dan Carter, Israel Dagg, Sam Whitlock and Kieran Read performing at their best.
Coach: Michael Foley
Captain: Matt Hodgson
Stadium: NIB Stadium
Best finish: Seventh (2007)
The Western Force have struggled to make an impact in their seven Super Rugby seasons and are a much changed team under new coach Michael Foley in a bid to become competitive.
They have recruited four-time All Black scrum-half Alby Mathewson and Cheetahs flyhalf Sias Ebersohn to solve their problems in the halves, while adding former Wallabies lock Hugh McMeniman and utility back Sam Norton-Knight from Japanese clubs.
But skipper David Pocock's defection to the Brumbies will be a huge loss. The Force will be looking for an improvement in fortunes this season, as they have in other years.
Coach: Jamie Joseph
Captain: Andrew Hore
Stadium: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Best finish: runners-up (1999)
In the space of two years, no-nonsense coach and former All Blacks hardman Jamie Joseph has turned the Highlanders into a formidable force. His success has come from instilling a work-hard ethic coupled with astute recruitment.
Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu have joined from the Blues and bruising former All Blacks lock Brad Thorn is another new addition.
The problem with the resurgent Highlanders under Joseph is they have self-destructed at the crunch end of the season, but the professionalism of the new trio should boost their chances of making the play-offs for the first time since 2002.
On the downside for the Highlanders, solid midfielder Tamati Ellison has been sidelined by injury.
Coach: Mark Hammett
Captain: Conrad Smith
Stadium: Westpac Stadium
Best finish: runners-up (2006)
Coach Mark Hammett cleared the decks when he took charge in 2011 to produce a relatively new-look side intent on playing an entertaining, high-risk, game. Last year they finished eighth, scoring more tries and points than any other team, but in terms of possession, territory and tries conceded they were well down the list.
Their strength lies in the flair of their back three - Conrad Smith, Julian Savea and Andre Taylor. Their forwards have been bolstered by the recruitment of Ben Franks to steel the front row but they have lost ace try scorer Cory Jane to injury.
Rival teams will have a better understanding of what makes the Hurricanes tick and their challenge is to again produce a successful counter-attack ethos while shoring up their defences.
Coach: Damien Hill
Captain: Gareth Delve
Stadium: AAMI Park
Best finish: 13th (2012)
The Rebels embark on their third Super Rugby season bolstered by hooker Shota Horie, who is in line to become the first Japanese player in the competition's 17-year history, and the arrival of Wallaby backrower Scott Higginbotham from the Reds.
Much of the Rebels' hopes hinge on their Wallaby duo Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, who missed much of last season through injury.
Welsh number eight Gareth Delve will be a driving influence in the forwards. Damien Hill is into his second term as coach since taking over from coach Rod Macqueen.
The Rebels, missing the experience this year of senior backs Mark Gerrard and Stirling Mortlock, face a challenge to test the other strong Australian teams as they continue to lay foundations of rugby in the Australian Football League heartland of Melbourne.
Coach: Richard Graham
Captain: James Horwill
Stadium: Suncorp Stadium
Best finish: Champions (2011)
The Reds failed in their bid for back-to-back Super Rugby titles when they went down to the the Sharks in the play-offs, after winning six straight matches to get to their home qualifying final as Australian conference champions.
The 2011 winners have a new head coach in last year's Western Force mentor Richard Graham, with Ewen McKenzie moving above him in a director of coaching role.
Much of the Reds' hopes this season hinge on the creativity of their Wallaby halves Quade Cooper and Will Genia behind a strong forward pack, led by skipper James Horwill.
A strong all-round squad features Wallaby backs Digby Ioane, Michael Harris and Ben Tapuai. The Reds are expected to push strongly to finish top of the Australian conference along with their traditional rivals, the Brumbies and Waratahs.
Coach: John Plumtree (NZL)
Captain: Keegan Daniel
Stadium: Kings Park, Durban
Best finish: Runners-up (2001, 2007, 2012)
The Sharks scraped into the play-offs last season and then eliminated defending champions the Reds in Brisbane and Stormers in Cape Town before travel fatigue caught up with them in a heavy final loss at the Chiefs.
Hopes of another good run have taken a few early blows with injuries sidelining captain and No. 8 Keegan Daniel and centre Tim Whitehead for a minimum of four rounds.
Hooker Bismarck du Plessis is another star who must watch the early matches from the stand, leaving Craig Burden to deputise between Springbok props Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis.
The pressure will be on fly-half and goal-kicker Patrick Lambie, as he slugs it out with Goosen for the Springbok No. 10 shirt, while centre Francois Steyn can put the ball between the posts from inside his own half.
Coach: Matt Sexton (NZL)
Captain: Luke Watson
Stadium: Nelson Mandela Bay, Port Elizabeth
Best finish: First appearance
No one is giving the controversial debutants a chance of survival and the dice are certainly loaded against the eastern Cape team and New Zealand-born coach Matt Sexton.
After many years of unfulfilled promises to elevate the Kings and boost the sport in the area of the country with the most black rugby players, they had a "boardroom" promotion at the expense of bottom 2012 team the Lions.
But if the doom-and-gloom merchants are to be believed and a Kings side short of stars and depth finish last in the South African conference, they will face a play-off with the Lions for a 2014 place.
Captain and loose forward Luke Watson has plenty of Super experience with Western Stormers, and a kind draw which sees them start at home to Australian strugglers Western Force might provide some desperately needed momentum.
Coach: Allister Coetzee
Captain: Schalk Burger
Stadium: Newlands, Cape Town
Best finish: Runners-up (2010)
An outstanding defence helped get them to the semi-finals last year, but a shock home loss to the Sharks meant another knockout disappointment for a team expected to be among the title challengers yet again this season.
They have gained from the demotion of the Lions with fly-half Elton Jantjies and full-back/centre Jaco Taute moving south to Cape Town from Johannesburg for the Super Rugby campaign.
Jantjies, whose limited game time with the Springboks last season triggered media and public criticism of coach Heyneke Meyer, faces stiff competition for the No. 10 shirt from Peter Grant, with both excellent goal-kickers.
The return of veteran flank Schalk Burger after a season on the sidelines is a huge boost although the injury curse has struck again with young lock Eben Etzebeth not expected to play for two months because of torn ankle ligaments.
Coach: Michael Cheika
Captain: Dave Dennis
Stadium: Allianz Stadium
Best finish: Runners-up (2005, 2008)
The Waratahs are Australia's great Super Rugby under-achievers, given the large number of Wallabies in their squad, and Michael Cheika has the task as the incoming head coach from Leinster to realise glory for the Sydney-based team.
The Waratahs have added emerging flanker Michael Hooper and former rugby league international back Israel Folau to their ranks, to be led this season by blindside flanker Dave Dennis.
The Waratahs won only four games out of 16 last season, leading to the departure of Michael Foley who is now coach of Western Force.
If Cheika can turn it around, the 'Tahs have the attacking players in Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Rob Horne, Israel Folau, Drew Mitchell and Lachie Turner to match any backline in Super Rugby. The trick will be to realise it.