Super Rugby AU kicks off Friday with rule tweaks designed to encourage more expansive play and the ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds expected to fight it out for domestic supremacy.
The 10-round five-team tournament gets underway with the Reds hosting the weakened New South Wales Waratahs and defending champion Brumbies heading to Perth to take on the beefed-up Western Force, while the Melbourne Rebels have an opening round bye.
Rule innovations include a golden try for extra-time games and a time clock on restarts and scrums aimed at more attacking rugby.
Last year's streamlined competition was launched in July after the coronavirus pandemic forced the suspension of the southern hemisphere's 15-team Super Rugby tournament amid global travel restrictions.
The Brumbies will encounter a strengthened Force with former Brumbies international centre Tevita Kuridrani, Waratahs prop Tom Robertson, Argentine pair Santiago Medrano and Tomas Lezana and Ireland's Rob Kearney to make their team debuts.
"They've got internationals across the board and times have certainly changed where last year they were just happy to be in the competition," Brumbies coach Dan McKellar said.
"But with the squad they've got there's more pressure to perform. It's going to be a real challenge for us."
- Vunivalu absent for opener -
The Force had a winless return to the Australian domestic tournament last year, but have gone shopping since as they prepare for their first Super Rugby game in Perth for almost four years after being axed from Super Rugby.
The Reds are heavily favoured to beat the Waratahs in Brisbane in the early match Friday, but will be without their prized off-season recruit, former Melbourne Storm NRL winger Suliasi Vunivalu.
Vunivalu was fined 10,000 dollars (7,770 US) and suspended by the Reds after being charged by police for allegedly pushing a security guard in the face at a Brisbane pub last month.
Vunivalu has been touted as a future Wallabies player and was invited into the Australian team camp in November just weeks after leaving the National Rugby League.
Highly-rated tight-head prop Taniela Tupou will be deployed off the bench and Wallaby James O'Connor will lead the Reds against the Waratahs, who have suffered a player exodus.
Tupou, rated among the world's best forwards by his own coach Brad Thorn, will be used at the death to begin the 2021 season.
“The Waratahs will provide a tough contest. There’s plenty of tradition and rivalry between the two teams as well, so we’re looking forward to a good hit-out,” Thorn said.
The Waratahs have lost more than 1,500 Super Rugby caps of experience over the past two seasons, headlined by Michael Hooper's one-year sabbatical in Japan.
Apart from Wallaby skipper Hooper, the Waratahs are also without internationals Adam Ashley-Cooper, Rob Simmons, Nick Phipps, Israel Folau, Sekope Kepu, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley, while Wallabies forward Jack Dempsey says he will be leaving at the end of the season to join the Glasgow Warriors.
"It's the nature of the beast, the boys took a heavy hit with salaries (last season) and there's some pretty attractive options for them offshore," Waratahs coach Rob Penney said.
"It's something we would rather not happen, but it's the realities of the environment."