Watch Reds vs Waratahs live on Sky Sports Action on Friday from 10am; Brumbies vs Rebels live on Sky Sports Action & Main Event on Saturday from 10.10am
Last Updated: 01/07/20 6:27am
Super Rugby AU kicks off on Friday and you can watch every game live on Sky Sports.
The competition will run over 12 consecutive weekends, with the top three then progressing to the finals series.
Australian rugby has been dominated by off-field events of late so a return to action will provide some welcome relief.
The Brumbies are the early favourites but face a tough test against the Rebels in their opening fixture while there is bound to be fireworks in the latest chapter of the Reds-Waratahs rivalry. And how will the Western Force fare after three years in the wilderness?
Here is our team-by-team guide…
Club legend Christian Lealiifano has been training with the squad in recent weeks following the cancellation of the Top League in Japan, providing valuable advice to rookie Brumbies fly-half Noah Lolesio.
The 20-year-old Lolesio impressed during the opening rounds of Super Rugby as the Brumbies won four of their five games, including a comprehensive victory away to the Chiefs. He will again be key as the Canberra club attempt to live up to the pre-tournament favourites tag.
Lock Blake Enever has left for Leicester but the Brumbies still boast a strong spine. Hooker Folau Fainga’a has become a prolific tryscorer off the back of their maul, the direct running of Pete Samu and Tevita Kuridrani will test any defence, while wing Solomone Kata has hit the ground running since switching codes.
Around 1,500 supporters will be allowed to attend Saturday’s game with the Rebels at GIO Stadium. Those lucky enough to be in attendance could witness the start of a successful campaign.
The Rebels were forced to relocate to Canberra last week due to a surge in Covid-19 cases in Victoria, the latest obstacle in a pre-season that has been dominated by off-field issues.
A return to Melbourne looks unlikely in the near future. Their game against the Reds in round two will be played at a New South Wales venue and other home fixtures could follow suit.
Meanwhile, the club’s chief executive Baden Stephenson was forced to deny reports of a player boycott due to proposed pay cuts.
There is no shortage of quality in the Rebels ranks, such as their captain Dane Haylett-Petty and fellow Wallabies Matt Toomua, Marika Koroibete and Isa Naisarani, while Australia Sevens duo Lewis Holland and Lachlie Anderson have also joined.
But consistency has been a longstanding problem, which was underlined during the opening rounds of the cancelled Super Rugby season as they claimed impressive wins over the Lions and away to the Highlanders, only to lose to the now-departed Sunwolves.
It’s hard to envisage an improvement in that area if the Rebels have to play all of their games on the road and players spend long periods away from their families.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing in Queensland either, where Brad Thorn’s rebuild of the Reds suffered a setback during the pandemic.
Three players – Wallaby Izack Rodda, fellow lock Harry Hockings and fly-half Isaac Lucas – were released from their contracts after refusing to take pay cuts while the season was in shutdown.
Thorn has tipped highly-rated youngster Angus Blyth, Ryan Smith and Tuaina Taii Tualima to fill the void in the second row, while No 8 Harry Wilson and centre Hunter Paisami are both fit and firing after recovering from knee injuries.
The Reds lost five of their seven Super Rugby fixtures before the competition was suspended but three of those defeats were by seven points or less. They need to develop more of a ruthless edge, starting with Saturday’s clash against their great rivals the Waratahs.
It’s unlikely the Waratahs shed too many tears when the Super Rugby season was cancelled. Four heavy defeats in six games left them languishing with the Sunwolves at the foot of the Australian Conference.
Their last game pre-lockdown was a 47-14 battering by the Brumbies, their biggest defeat to the Canberra side since 2002, while they also shipped over 40 points in losses to the Chiefs and Crusaders.
Shoring up a porous defence will have been one of Rob Penney’s main objectives ahead of Friday’s trip to Brisbane but he has also lost a focal point of his attack in Kurtley Beale, who has departed for France.
The break will have done Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper some good as the Waratahs will again look to the flanker for inspiration.
He can’t do it alone, though. Other big-name players such as Rob Simmons, Karmichael Hunt and Jack Dempsey also need to step up if they are to stand any hope of challenging.
Three years after their acrimonious exit from Super Rugby, the Force are back with a point to prove.
Being tipped to finish bottom is nothing new for Force fans but their team faces a big jump in standard compared to the Global Rapid Rugby tournament they competed in last year.
Head coach Tim Sampson has added some experienced players to his squad. Prop Greg Holmes joins from Exeter Chiefs while former Force players Jono Lance, Kyle Godwin and Ollie Atkins have all rejoined.
Hopes are also high that Perth-born pair Kane Koteka and Jordan Luke can make an impact after returning from stints in Japan and Queensland respectively.
The Force have a bye in the opening round, which gives their new recruits extra time to familiarise themselves with Sampson’s system.
However, a tough start, and a possible lack of home advantage, means the Force could quickly find themselves lagging behind. They open with back-to-back away games against the Waratahs and Reds and it remains unclear whether their fixture against the Brumbies on July 25 will be played in Perth.
The Force are hoping the Western Australian government will relax their mandatory 14-day quarantine period for sporting teams who visit the state.