Super Rugby under pressure to win back fans
With a host of leading players departing after the Rugby World Cup in Japan, Super Rugby's administrators will be under more pressure this season as they look to win back fans and television viewers ahead of a shake-up to the competition from 2021.
Crowds and viewing figures have steadily tracked downwards in recent years with pundits pointing to a confusing conference system and fewer competitive matches.
The conference system, which guarantees at least one team from each country makes the quarter-finals but has been criticized for failing to reward the better-performing sides, will be abandoned after this season and replaced by a 14-team straight round-robin format.
The new format means this year's competition will be the last for the Japan-based Sunwolves, whose demise was confirmed last year after SANZAAR and the Japan Rugby Union failed to agree on the terms of their inclusion.
There was some hope that with Japan reaching the quarter-finals of last year's successful World Cup that the Sunwolves might be given a reprieve in a bid to build on the sport's appeal in the country.
This year's team, however, contains no World Cup players and is again dominated by journeymen from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific islands, suggesting there is little chance of a U-turn.
Super Rugby has also lost some of its appeal with a host of high-profile and marketable players departing the competition after the World Cup.
Almost two-thirds of the Springboks' World Cup winning side now play overseas, though captain Siya Kolisi and World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit remain with the Cape Town-based Stormers.
The departure of several All Blacks veterans from Super Rugby, particularly at the 10-times champions the Crusaders, could mark the end of New Zealand's recent dominance of the competition, where their sides have won seven of the last nine titles.
The Crusaders won the last three competitions under coach Scott Robertson but the pack that provided the basis for their winning run has lost All Blacks Kieran Read, Owen Franks, Matt Todd, Sam Whitelock and veteran Jordan Taufua.
Robertson may have something to prove though after missing out on the All Blacks job when Steve Hansen stepped down.
Former Wales coach Warren Gatland is also likely to be heavily scrutinised after returning home from a two-decade career in Europe to take the helm of the Chiefs, who look to be the Crusaders' main threat.
Argentine side the Jaguares, who were beaten by the Crusaders in last year's final, also look to be dangerous again having retained virtually their entire squad.
The settled Brumbies, who won the Australian conference three out of the last four years, also look most likely to advance to the playoffs with the Waratahs and the Reds both rebuilding.
Australian players will have the added incentive of trying to impress new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, who replaced Michael Cheika after their quarter-final exit at the World Cup.
The last Australian team to win the Super Rugby title was the Waratahs in 2014.