With the domestic Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa tournaments now run and won, it's time for the provincial season's main event: Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
The five-week crossover series, where Australia's five franchises and their New Zealand counterparts will face off against each other, begins this Friday, meaning there is sparing little time for the Crusaders & Reds to celebrate their respective tournament wins from Saturday night.
Super Rugby Trans-Tasman for a while appeared to have been a flawed concept, with no certainty as to whether competition could actually in its home-and-away format amid the pandemic. But confirmation of quarantine-free travel from New Zealand early in April, and then the successful commencement of the bubble on Apr. 19, has set the stage for an intriguing competition.
That is unless you are Australian bookmakers tab.com.au, who have installed each of the Crusaders, Blues, Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes at shorter odds to win the title than each of the five Australian franchises.
Certainly the Waratahs, Rebels and Force are up against it, but have the Reds [$12] and Brumbies [$10] been slighted by the bookmakers?
After a wonderful Super Rugby AU decider, which was played before almost 42,000 fans and was the most watched provincial rugby match since the 2011 Super Rugby final, the last thing Australian rugby needs is to be completely dominated by New Zealand's five franchises.
So we here at ESPN have introduced the Trans-Tasman Tracker, which will chart the collective success of Australia's five Super Rugby teams against their New Zealand rivals.
It was only three years ago that Australia's five franchises lost an incredible 40 straight games against New Zealand opposition across the 2017 and 2018 Super Rugby seasons.
That record improved dramatically in 2019 when Australia won five of 16 trans-Tasman contests and there had been two victories from eight games when Super Rugby was halted at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year.
The rivalry takes on extra significance this season with the planned 12-team Super Rugby competition, which would see complete reunification along with the addition of Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika, in the works for 2022.
If the competition is to be a success, it's needs Australia's five teams to be competitive and not descend into a repeat of the winless catastrophe from 2017-2018.
So what exactly should be the target of Australia's collective target, what will Rugby Australia's director of rugby, Scott Johnson, and Wallabies coach Dave Rennie be aiming for?
Johnson, for his part, is on the record as saying he believes Australia is capable of having two teams reach the final. The Reds and Brumbies are certainly playing with excellent skill, intensity and physicality - but is that really a realistic goal?
And how will the Rebels and Waratahs perform after disappointing Super Rugby AU seasons, the latter going 0-8 having sacked coach Rob Penney along the way. The Rebels, too, have a new coach at the helm with Kevin Foote taking over from Dave Wessels, who stood down after Melbourne failed to reach the finals.
Western Force have already performed above many people's expectations having only returned to the national fold last year, but it has been even longer since the Perth-based franchise last faced New Zealand opposition.
Our rugby experts Sam Bruce and Brittany Mitchell have gazed into their crystal balls, looking at the draw, the form of the competition's 10 sides and recent trans-Tasman records, to settle on a collective win rate for Australia's five franchises.
We will then revisit the tracker after each round is played.
Collective Australian win rate: 36% [9/25]
I've been looking forward to this tournament all year, purely to get a gauge on just how good these Reds and Brumbies teams are. The Crusaders have clearly been a cut above the pack in New Zealand despite a mid-season hiccup in Super Rugby Aotearoa, but their 24-13 victory over the Chiefs confirms they are the team to beat in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
Looking at the potential collective fortunes of Australia's five teams, round 1 represents a real test. The Reds and Brumbies both face difficult assignments across the ditch while the Hurricanes and Blues will both be confident of beating the Waratahs and Rebels respectively. With the benefit of a week off, the Force will be right up for the visit of the Chiefs, who face the long trip to Perth coming off a bruising final with the Crusaders.
Unfortunately, I can't see more than one Australian win in Round 1. The good news is I believe that will improve across the following four weeks. That is, unless, you follow the Waratahs; sadly, I see NSW's winless run continuing through Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
But I believe the Reds and Brumbies can bring up at least three wins each, possibly four, with the Force and Rebels jagging one along the way, too. I think a collective 9/25 wins for Australia's five teams is attainable and anything less would be failure.
Collective win rate: 44% [11/25]
No doubt plenty of people will think I'm delusional tipping the Australian teams to win almost 50 per cent of matches in the Trans-Tasman competition, but I like to think I'm an optimist -- I have to be after following the Waratahs for so many years. But I truly believe at least two of Australia's sides -- the Reds and Brumbies -- will give their trans-Tasman rivals a run for their money.
After dominating Super Rugby AU, TT will be the true test not just for the Brumbies and Reds, but for the rest of the Australian rugby cohort to see where they're placed. After a thrilling spectacle on Saturday in Brisbane, both sides have primed themselves for what will be a brutal competition. Their first round will be a tough test -- especially with the Brumbies backing up against the Crusaders -- for this reason, I believe it'll only be the Reds taking home the spoils in Round 1.
While the Western Force stepped up in SRAU, making their first ever finals appearance, they're more middle of the pack and I really don't see them taking home wins in New Zealand. Fortress HBF Park will be where they will taste victory.
In regards to the Rebels and Waratahs, it'll be tough viewing for fans of both sides. The Rebels really struggled in SRAU and rightfully missed out on a finals appearance, while the Waratahs have dropped every game this year. Unfortunately, I really don't see the Rebels recording any victories, with perhaps their best chance against the Highlanders in Queenstown; a win on the road in New Zealand though is always hard to come by. I perhaps naively believe the Waratahs can get the job done at least once, however.