The 2013 Super Rugby season will have a fractured start - with two Australian derbies getting the show on the road this week.
Most of the other teams will only get into action next week, with the seven-time champion Crusaders only playing their first match on March 1.
The staggered start to the season is the result of the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia later this year, when the Australian franchises will play the tourists from the four Home Unions.
The split rounds mean that Round One and Round 17 will only feature Australian Conference teams, while Round 18 and Round 19 will see only New Zealand and South African Conference teams.
However, there should be plenty to salivate over when the season kicks off on Friday - when the Rebels host the Western Force in Melbourne, before the Brumbies and Reds go head-to-head in Canberra on Saturday.
Brumbies coach Jake White dismissed the notion that Aussie derbies are not on par with inter-conference games in New Zealand and South Africa and said the all-Australian opening round will provide plenty of entertainment.
"There will always be that debate," White told this website in an interview from Canberra.
"People will say New Zealand derbies are do-or-die. In South Africa, because of the Currie Cup and the history of the tournament, people have always perceived that those derby games are bigger," the Brumbies mentor said.
He feels it is no different Down Under.
"That is why there is a conference system," he said, adding: "You must to win your conference to be in a good position in the play-offs and that means you have to beat the teams in your conference if you want to finish top of the standings.
"They [Aussie derbies] are as cut-throat as when the Stormers play the Bulls, or when the Blues play the Crusaders. Even if it is not [as] physical in terms of the style they play, they are physical in terms of both teams understanding each other and the players knowing each other so well."
* Obviously the staggered start will effect the competition standings from Round One, when only Australian local derby matches will be played.
As with the previous season, each team will have two scheduled byes during the regular season and will receive four points for each of these byes (total of eight points).
No additional points will be awarded to teams that are not participating in split rounds.
This will be reflected in the weekly overall standings and conference table by denoting teams that have played additional matches due to the split rounds.
Jan de Koning looks at the opening weekend's drama!
Friday, February 15
Rebels v Western Force
(AAMI Park, Melbourne - Kick-off: 19.40; 08.40 GMT)
While Damien Hill, now in his second full season as head coach, has a settled team and a number of established internationals in his squad, new Western Force coach Michael Foley has had a lot of of-field issues to deal with.
The Rebels starting XV for Friday's season opener will feature Wallabies James O'Connor (playing at fullback), Kurtley Beale (at flyhalf), Nick Phipps (No.9) and loose forward Scott Higginbotham.
The team will be captained by Welsh international Gareth Delve.
In stark contrast the new Force mentor, Foley, has a battle on his hands revitalising a team which has lost its two best players - David Pocock to the Brumbies and the now retired Nathan Sharpe.
The franchise are at the start of a new cycle under a new CEO, coach and captain.
However, media reports suggested the Perth-based franchise is under threat after under- performing since formation.
Australian Rugby Union CEO Bill Pulver dismissed the notion that they could cull the Force.
"No chance in the world that there will not be a Western Force," Pulver told the West Australian newspaper.
"We are 150 percent committed to the franchises that we have. The future development of rugby, unquestionably in my mind, will involve the Perth team.
"The five franchises are non- negotiable. I don't think I can make that any clearer. It is crystal clear in my mind there will always be five franchises.
"I'm hoping it's going to be a great year for the Force. There is a buzz about the team."
There is a franchise in South Africa, called the Lions, who heard similar promises from the bosses at SA Rugby Union headquarters in Cape Town. Guess what, the Lions are not playing Super Rugby this year.
There is another problem for the Force.
Captain Matt Hodgson is still struggling with a hamstring strain and won't feature in Friday's opening round.
"I have trained, but I think I won't be playing," he told the newspaper, adding: "I should be right for round two."
While the Force are talking survival, the Rebels have far more lofty goals. They feel they can reach the play-offs with a settled squad, littered with quality internationals.
While the coach, Hill admitted they are determined to be more than just making up the numbers.
The Rebels moved up two places from last in their debut year in 2011 to 13th last year.
Hill, talking at the launch of the Super Rugby season in Melbourne on Wednesday, said only that "the expectations on the team this year are high".
"I'm not going to put a number on it," Hill told The Age newspaper.
"We want to win as many games as we can and if it's enough to get us into finals contention that's exactly what we're after."
The Force coach, Foley, said he expected the result would come down to a battle of the forwards.
"The Rebels forwards that we've talked about [have been] Higginbotham, Gareth Delve at No.8 … I think it is an interesting selection that they've left Cadeyrn Neville on the bench but again that just tells you what sort of depth they've got in the back five of their scrum," he told the newspaper.
Foley lamented his team's recent poor record against the Rebels with three losses from their past three.
"The Rebels have had some fantastic wins and I think their recruitment's been extremely good," Foley said.
Prediction: You can never write off the Western Force, but it will take a brave soul to bet against a Rebels win. Pre-season defeats - 16-24 against the Waratahs and 45-47 to the Hurricanes - may suggest the Rebels have some work to do. And while that may be true, the Force are in a far bigger state on flux. Then again, they ran the Brumbies close (losing by just two points, 18-20) and then ran rampant against a Tongan Select XV (46-0). Still, we feel the Rebels will sneak this one and win by less than 10 points.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 James O'Connor, 14 Lachlan Mitchell, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Richard Kingi, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Gareth Delve (captain) 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Cadeyrn Neville, 19 Jarrod Saffy, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 Alex Rokobaro, 22 Tom English.
Western Force: TBC
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Richard Goswell (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Saturday, February 16
Brumbies v Reds
(Canberra Stadium, Canberra - kick-off: 19.40 ; 08.40 GMT)
Without doubt the game of the weekend - the game in which there will be plenty of expectations, as these are the two teams fancied to top the Aussie conference at the end of the season.
Brumbies coach Jake White admitted there will be a lot more pressure on his team this year, after his no-name brand of enthusiastic players came within one point of a spot in the play-offs during his first year in charge in Canberra.
"The expectations will always be bigger, because now we are a bit more settled," White told this website in an interview from the team's home base.
"The expectations will also be bigger because we have an obvious stronger player roster - with players like David Pocock and Clyde Rathbone on our books now.
"People will now take us more seriously, which is fantastic. When you play rugby you want people to sit up and take you seriously."
The Canberra franchise worked very hard in the pre-season and got some reward - a two-point (20-18) squeaker over the Western Force and a 38-7 against an ACT XV.
And with only Pat McCabe of their first-choice selections not available out of a squad of 35, White is happy with where his team is at.
"You are never really fully prepared, ideally you always want more, but we've had a great pre-season."
Reds Director of Coaching Ewen McKenzie admitted the trip to Canberra is a daunting venture.
"Historically the Reds have performed poorly against the Brumbies, but we've worked extremely hard over the past few seasons to change the reality and last year we were able to win the Rod Macqueen Cup for the first time," McKenzie said.
"It isn't as though we need any more motivation, but we worked too hard to secure it to just give it up easily. The fact that we're also going into an Australian derby against one of our biggest rivals, away from home in round one, just adds to the occasion.
"We've seen and heard a lot about the success of the Brumbies' pre-season and their motivation for revenge.
"The reality for us is on each occasion we played the Brumbies in 2012 we won. Yet still the Brumbies are the bookmakers favourite to win.
"We don't seek to be the underdogs and we don't like it. All we can do is go down there and build on our recent record where we've won the past two games."
Prediction: This is tough to call - not only because it is the first real big derby of the season, but also because history tells us there is seldom much to choose between these sides. While the Brumbies had back-to-back wins in their pre-season outings, the Reds had mixed results - rolling the Blues 41-35, before going down (8-20) to the defending champion Chiefs. Maybe the Canberra factor will swing it the way of the Brumbies. We think the Brumbies will sneak a win, by five points.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Clyde Rathbone, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (captain),
7 David Pocock, 6 Peter Kimlin, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Dan Palmer, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Ruaidhri Murphy, 18 Colby Faingaa, 19 Fotu Auelua, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Joseph Tomane, 22 Robbie Coleman.
Forwards: Nigel Ah Wong, Albert Anae, Jarrad Butler, Saia Faingaa, Liam Gill, James Hanson, Greg Holmes, Ed O'Donoghue, Eddie Quirk, Jake Schatz, Rob Simmons, James Slipper (captain), Adam Wallace-Harrison
Backs: Quade Cooper, Chris F'Sautia, Nick Frisby, Mike Harris, Digby Ioane, Jono Lance, Ben Lucas, Dom Shipperley, Ben Tapuai, Aidan Toua.
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant referees: James Leckie (Australia) Ian Smith (Australia)
TMO: Matt Goddard (Australia)
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