Wellington (AFP) - Super Rugby's latest incarnation kicks off this weekend with event boss Andy Marinos vowing the slimmed down tournament will deliver a "competitive and compelling" spectacle to end years of criticism.
By dumping the unwieldy 18-team, four-conference championship in favour of a more streamlined 15 teams in three conferences, Marinos has pledged a five-nation club tournament "that promises to deliver the best versus the best."
"With the hard decisions to re-structure Super Rugby behind us we can now look forward to a stronger tournament," said Marinos, chief executive of Super Rugby's controlling body Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby), which also includes Japan.
The Canterbury Crusaders, the most successful team in the history of the 22-year-old tournament, are again fancied to be contenders in the finals.
They beat the Golden Lions 25-17 in South Africa in last year's final, and are the only side to travel overseas to win the Super crown, a feat they have achieved twice.
"It's what Crusaders do," said coach Scott Robertson, attributing the success to the proud history of the club who have made the semi-finals 17 times and gone on to make 12 finals, winning eight of them.
"We created opportunities to create history."
But while Marinos talks of a stronger tournament, the impact of injuries and the requirement in New Zealand to make players available for All Blacks' training camps could have a telling effect.
New Zealand has arguably the toughest conference with local derbies likened to Test-match intensity, and there has been some indignation to plans by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen to hold mid-week camps ahead of the June Test series against France.
"It is not tidy for anyone because at the end of the day, generally those guys that go to the All Blacks are the guys that are key to your environment," argued Wellington Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd.
"So not to have them at the start of the week and then play a game two days later, is really short of high performance in my mind."
- Cumbersome format -
While New Zealand have selection issues, new Lions coach Swys de Bruin has noted how the new format demands teams to be on song every weekend, especially "making the most of our home fixtures".
The Lions host the Coastal Sharks in Johannesburg and the Western Stormers play Argentina's Jaguares in Cape Town this weekend when only the South African conference is in action.
The New Zealand and Australian conferences come on line a week later.
Under the new-look competition each team will face 12 of the other 14 sides, meaning the Lions will play all of the New Zealand teams in the regular season except the Waikato Chiefs.
Under last year's cumbersome format they did not play a New Zealand team until they met the Wellington Hurricanes in the semi-finals, and de Bruin likes the look of the tough challenge ahead.
"We've got four overseas games this year, which is different to last year and the year before, so it's certainly tougher than what we're used to," said De Bruin, who restricted the Lions to one warm up match to reduce the risk of injury.
The Lions will host the Crusaders on April 1, three weeks before the scheduled return of several senior players in the Canterbury side, including All Blacks' captain Kieran Read, who are recuperating from off-season surgery.
With three teams cut from this year's competition, under the new format every team will play home and away matches against the others in their conference, and take on four of the five teams from the other two conferences.
At the end of the regular season, the three conference winners and the next five teams will progress to the quarter-finals.
Australian sides in particular are looking to be more competitive after introducing a new fitness and conditioning programme, following a disastrous 2017 season when the Brumbies, with only six wins from 15 matches, were the best performing side.