WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Super Rugby returns this weekend with the competition's three new teams set to generate more interest than Friday's opening match between Auckland's Blues, the first title winners, and Otago's Highlanders, the reigning champions.
Fans may seek an early indication of whether former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga can coach the Blues to success after years of under-achievement, and whether the Highlanders can make last year's suprise first championship more than a one-off.
But the first appearances in Super Rugby of Japan's Sunwolves, Argentina's Jaguares and South Africa's Kings will be of much greater interest, shedding light on the strength of those teams and their effect on the championship.
While there is a reasonable hope the Jaguares will be immediately competitive, there is doubt the Sunwolves and Kings will measure up to Super Rugby in their earliest matches or even in their inaugural seasons.
Under any circumstances, the Sunwolves' opening match against South Africa's Lions at Tokyo's Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium on Saturday, will be historic — taking Super Rugby to Japan for the first time and expanding the tournament beyond its traditional boundaries of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The Kings are also at home for their opening match — not a debut, but a return to Super Rugby — at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth in the heart of South Africa's rugby-man Eastern Province. They face compatriots the Sharks in a derby which will be a tough first test of their mettle.
The Jaguares are the only new team who will make their debut on the road, at Bloemfontein against South Africa's Cheetahs. It is a match they can almost certainly win - and if they do so they may help diminish evident cynicism over the tournament's latest enlargement.
While expansion into Japan and Argentina may open new markets and win new fans, the failure of local teams could as quickly dampen support for rugby in those areas.
And while Super Rugby teams in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa build on strong, established provincial bases, the newcomers in Japan and Argentina can't rely on that foundation as they make their way in the world's strongest professional rugby competition.
The Sunwolves have had less than three weeks to prepare for their opening match and despite convincingly winning a recent warmup game they face a huge task to compete in one of the tournament's weakest conferences.
Everything has gone against them in their buildup; the late announcement of their coach and roster, a delay in assembling and finally a bereavement which forced head coach Mark Hammett to briefly quit the team this week to return to his native New Zealand.
Hammett remains confident the team will make its mark in its first season.
"Everyone is excited but a little bit nervous," he said. "Super Rugby is the hardest competition in the world but in saying that we need to bring our Sunwolves style of rugby and develop it over the coming months."
The Jaguares won one and lost one of their warmups against South African opponents and have a roster of hard-headed professionals schooled in France's Top 14 competition. But even they may struggle in a competition that runs from February to August and in which depth is crucial.
The first round will provide early indications of where the strengths of the competition lie but the 18-team tournament is long and complex and winning will be a feat of endurance.
Most teams start with derby matches, the exceptions being game between the ACT Brumbies and Hurricanes, the Jaguares and Cheetahs, the Sunwolves and Lions. The Blues and Highlanders and the Chiefs and Crusaders meet in New Zealand while in Australia the Queensland Reds face the New South Wales Waratahs and the Melbourne Rebels meet the Western Force. In South Africa, the Kings play the Sharks and the Stormers meet the Bulls.