Preview: Hurricanes v Blues
In our eyes there are four genuine contenders to top the New Zealand conference. The Blues meet one of those in their opener in Wellington.
Mark Hammett's men in yellow and black were 2012's surprise package as they played a brand of rugby that caused all opposition real problems.
They unearthed the talents of Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara and Julian Savea while Conrad Smith thrived as skipper following senior players' exits.
Four points stood between them and a place in the play-offs, which was an impressive feat seeing as few had given the 'Canes a chance.
This year it is the Blues who have been branded as somewhat no-hopers in a quintet that should provide plenty of entertainment from now 'til July.
But can they do a 'Canes? While they probably won't challenge, we think they will shock a few franchises along the way with their young and promising starlets. Take note of names such as Frank Halai, Francis Saili and current New Zealand Sevens representative Ben Lam, who has been excellent on the IRB circuit this season. Also factor in something of a dream coaching trio of Sir Graham Henry, Sir John Kirwan and Mick 'The Kick' Byrne and their rebuilding job is underway.
Saturday's fixture in Wellington itself should be a high-octane spectacle that sees two key players clash at outside centre. Smith, as mentioned, was consistently superb last season while this campaign a maturing Rene Ranger has been given greater responsibility to lead.
Ranger has long possessed the necessary tools that should have made him one of the most lethal backs in the competition. Unfortunately, his route to regular All Black recognition has not materialised. This might be his year though - following Richard Kahui announcing his upcoming venture to Japan while Tamati Ellison is injured for most of the campaign - and we may also see a potentially lethal combo with Saili settle sooner rather than later.
All the ingredients bode well for a fantastic 80 minutes at Westpac Stadium as the 'Canes, missing Cory Jane, hope that Savea and Andre Taylor offer sufficient threats to get past a Blues line-up that has trained exceptionally hard during their pre-season. Don't believe me?
Super head-to-head: There are match-ups all over the paddock that catch the eye as Smith faces off with Ranger, Halai goes up against Savea and Ben Franks takes on Charlie Faumuina. But we opt for the battle at 9 and 10 where young duo TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett collide with a more experienced Piri Weepu and Chris Noakes. Whomever comes out on top in this will, in our eyes, be on the winning side at the full-time whistle.
Prediction: It could well be a back-and-forth clash but we go for the Hurricanes by 8!
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Brad Shields, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Victor Vito, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Reggie Goodes, 18 Mark Reddish, 19 Faifili Levave, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 James Marshall, 22 Reynold Lee-Lo.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (c), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tom McCartney.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Angus Ta'avao, 18 Liaki Moli, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Bryn Hall, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Jackson Willison.
Date: Saturday, February 23
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Television match official: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)