Super Rugby makes a triumphant return to the slate this weekend, with the Waratahs looking to get their title defence up and running against Australian foes Western Force on Sunday.
It's been a long wait for the southern hemisphere to welcome back its club competition and after a lengthy period of international rugby taking the spotlight, franchise play is set to fill our calendars once again.
A lengthy 2015 season lies ahead, with stars from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all hoping to impress in time for the World Cup, but Round 1 is the first chance to soar.
Read on for discussion of this weekend's key storylines and a breakdown of all the vital viewing information.
|2015 Super Rugby: Week 1 Schedule|
|Date||Time||Fixture||Live Stream||TV Info|
|Friday, Feb. 13||6:35 a.m. GMT/1:35 a.m. ET||Crusaders vs. Rebels||Sky Go (UK), SuperSport stream (SA)||Sky Sports 1 (UK), SuperSport 1 (SA)|
|Friday, Feb. 13||8:40 a.m. GMT/3:40 a.m. ET||Brumbies vs. Reds||Sky Go (UK), SuperSport stream (SA)||Sky Sports 1 (UK), SuperSport 1 (SA)|
|Friday, Feb. 13||5:10 p.m. GMT/12:10 p.m. ET||Lions vs. Hurricanes||Sky Go (UK), SuperSport stream (SA)||Sky Sports 4 (UK), SuperSport 1 (SA)|
|Saturday, Feb. 14||6:35 a.m. GMT/1:35 a.m. ET||Blues vs. Chiefs||Sky Go (UK), SuperSport stream (SA)||Sky Sports 3 (UK), SuperSport 1 (SA)|
|Saturday, Feb. 14||3:05 p.m. GMT/10:05 a.m. ET||Sharks vs. Cheetahs||Sky Go (UK), SuperSport stream (SA)||Sky Sports 1 (UK), SuperSport 1 (SA)|
|Saturday, Feb. 14||5:10 p.m. GMT/12:10 p.m. ET||Bulls vs. Stormers||Sky Go (UK), SuperSport stream (SA)||Sky Sports 3 (UK), SuperSport 1 (SA)|
|Sunday, Feb. 15||5:05 a.m. GMT/12:05 a.m. ET||Waratahs vs. Western Force||Sky Go (UK), SuperSport stream (SA)||Sky Sports 3 (UK), SuperSport 1 (SA)|
All matches broadcast on Sky Sports will be available to stream on the Sky Go app for viewers in the United Kingdom. SuperSport provides a streaming service for select viewers in the southern hemisphere.
Waratahs Going Against the Force
Michael Cheika will officially begin his juggling act as head coach of reigning Super Rugby champions the Waratahs and the Australian national team this year, with few tacticians shouldering more responsibility than him.
Making his way to Sydney's ANZ Stadium this Sunday is a familiar face, with former Tahs coach and current Western Force helmsman Michael Foley quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald's Rupert Guinness on his return to New South Wales:
You'd love to win the first game of the season. We've never done that. That would be a novel thing," Foley said of a first-up win against the Super Rugby champions. But at the same time, if you don't, you have to accept that it is one game. If you don't win it there are 15 more games and we put that in perspective last year.
We certainly didn't play well [in last season's 43-21 defeat]. The Waratahs went on to be champions. We didn't realise that at the time, but [we] faced a very good side first up, didn't play very good, then lost our first game at home and then came out and put five games together.
Every team that goes to Sydney this year knows they are playing the champions and the Waratahs have been explicit in their understanding of that [challenge to them]. So it just gives a chance to go there and have a good crack and that's what we will do.
Foley brought this Western Force team within inches of a playoff place last year and there would be no better signal of his intentions to improve once more than to beat the defending champions in Week 1.
So faithful is the franchise in the effect Foley has had on this team that he was recently rewarded with a new two-year deal in Perth, per ESPN Scrum:
However, if the Waratahs have gone about their off-season preparations in the right manner, they promise to be contenders once again, with their back line possessing some monstrous potency.
The connection between Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale in particular will be one the Western Force need to limit, but it's a task in which few teams managed to succeed in 2014.
Sonny Bill Williams is Back
It's a tad indulgent to glorify one player in particular when so many superstars of the sport will announce their Super Rugby comebacks this weekend, but then Sonny Bill Williams courts more excitement than most.
The New Zealand international has racked up international minutes since making his return from the National Rugby League and Saturday's trip to face the Blues in Auckland will mark his official return.
The Chiefs behemoth recently featured in a 38-36 trial defeat to the Waratahs where he came up against fellow league convert Israel Folau as part of the losing party.
However, in the build-up to the fixture, Wallabies ace Folau spoke highly of Williams as influencing his own decision to trade codes, per Jamie Pandaram of The Daily Telegraph (h/t Fox Sports):
One thing I can take out of that situation, looking at Sonny when he first left, he was doing what was best for him and he didn’t really worry about the public opinion was. That’s what I went through as well. I am sure he has come out as a stronger, better person.
It has definitely helped me, the years that I spent at the [GWS] Giants, it was a great experience both on and off the field. At that stage when Sonny first switched over it was exciting not just for the fans but other professional athletes who wanted to see how his progress was going; I was one of them.
Williams has set a new tone for what can be achieved by players wishing to peruse their interests in other trades, but the Chiefs now have him firmly back under their command, much to the Blues' dismay.
Last month, the Chiefs beat the Blues 41-20 in their first pre-season trial, but Williams will be present this time as the 2012 and 2013 Super Rugby champions hope for a bright start in Auckland.
The Blues finished last season at the base of the New Zealand conference while Dave Rennie led the Chiefs to a playoff appearance, since extending his contract by another two years, per the official Super Rugby Twitter account:
Having a weapon of Williams' quality once more is a terrific boost for the team, and with a World Cup looming, one can guarantee the former Toulon maestro will be at his most motivated to impress.
The Blues will hope their work in recent months has been enough to improve their prospects ahead of the new season, but Williams should lead the Chiefs to victory in what looks a mismatched meeting of New Zealand's giants.