Can the Bulls start with a bang?
With the Super Rugby kick-off tantalisingly close, SARugby.com offer our thoughts on the weekend's games and the final log.
It's the South African sides who get us underway on Saturday, and the Bulls open with a tricky trip to Durban; marking the Sharks' much-anticipated first game under Jake White. As usual, there is money to be made as long as you know what you're looking for, and BetFlash has opportunities aplenty to cash in.
The hosts have been in good form through pre-season, even if a 50-point shellacking of relegation favourites, the Lions, is not a massive boast. Laying big on a Sharks win should see you profit nicely; BetFlash offer odds of 7/20 on a home victory.
The Bulls may not be the force of old, but although we don't see them springing a surprise on Saturday, their 11/5 price tag might tempt a few brave souls.
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There was much discussion at SAR Towers over the final standings, but the general consensus was that none of us could see past the Chiefs finishing atop the overall table, and bagging yet another title this year. The Sharks should ease their way to the summit of the South African conference ahead of the Stormers, while the Waratahs will head up the Australian division to finish third.
The Crusaders are too good not to be up there come the business end of the season, and we've backed them to seal fourth place. The Brumbies will face a tough ask to reach the heights of 2013 amid what should prove the tightest conference, but we reckon they'll make fifth. Despite few additions to their roster, the Stormers' solid defence should see them into sixth, especially if they can keep their big names fit and firing.
Quade Cooper's Reds will come close to a top-six place, but we think they'll narrowly miss out, and wind up forced to settle for seventh. Things get a little more jumbled and harder to call as we move further down the table, with the Blues, Cheetahs, Bulls and Hurricanes all capable of occupying eighth spot, sparking plenty healthy debate in the office!
After much deliberation, we decided that the Blues, bolstered by a host of All Blacks, and with a back-row that may include Jerome Kaino and Steven Luatua, should get there, though much will hinge on how Benji Marshall adapts to playing pivot.
The Cheetahs usually offer entertainment in spades, but a mid-table finish in ninth spot is more likely after last year's play-off heroics. They could be in trouble if one or two of their key players - Adriaan Strauss and Willie le Roux especially - pick up injuries.
The Bulls should fall back to earth with a bump this year after the exit door at Loftus Versfeld has been rattled off its hinges with the loss of 11 players, many of them Springboks. Victor Matfield's return will be interesting, and potentially galvansing, but tenth place is our bet for Frans Ludeke's men.
The 'Canes have an impressive squad, and a fantastic backline, but until they match prowess and potency with consistency in their performances, a lowly spot on the log beckons.
The Rebels and the Force are Australia's weakest franchises - many argue the nation and the cash-strapped ARU simply cannot support nor sustain five Super Rugby teams. Twelfth and fourteenth-placed finishes respectively, in our book.
We think they'll be split by the Highlanders in thirteenth: with a start-studded lineup last year, they played some awesome rugby, but results were not forthcoming. In fact, that's an understatement - the results were shocking. Now many of the big names have gone, and we don't see any reason for them to be climbing back up the table.
That leaves the Lions as Super Rugby's perennial whipping boys in bottom spot. Edging out the Kings in 2013, it's tough to see where they will pick up points this year.
Reckon we've got it all wrong? Check out our predictions here.
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