WELLINGTON - The defending champion Chiefs and perennially-strong Crusaders present the most compelling case that New Zealand will claim a 12th title in the 18th edition of Super Rugby.
Deeper rosters at the Hurricanes and Highlanders and some bright signs from the overhauled Blues points to a keenly-fought New Zealand conference over the next five months.
New Zealand Rugby Union boss Steve Tew boasted at a recent competition launch that South African and Australian teams will struggle to match the quality on show in his country.
Tew may be biased, but an absence of serious injuries and a trickle, rather than torrent, of top players heading offshore since last year leaves a Kiwi conference brimming with class and depth.
Picking who will emerge top among the five franchises is no easy task.
Local bookmakers say the Crusaders will end a four-year habit of faltering in the playoffs under coach Todd Blackadder since predecessor Robbie Deans steered them to title No.7 in 2008.
The red and blacks will miss peerless flanker Richie McCaw, who is on a sabbatical for most of the competition.
But a clutch of other All Blacks in the pack and the guiding hand of Dan Carter at five-eighth suggests a 15th visit to the playoffs is close to inevitable.
Once there, Blackadder reckons they'll be in a better mental space than in recent years.
"If anything, probably we've bought into that too much — it's always been about winning a title or else you're gone," he said.
"Nothing's changed but we're going to enjoy it this year and the end result will take care of itself."
The Chiefs have reached the post-season just three times — less than any New Zealand outfit — but fully deserved their maiden crown in 2012. Coach Dave Rennie's introduction of players he trusted to the franchise and a no-frills attitude paid dividends as they improved from 10th to first.
The Hurricanes and Highlanders will have designs on higher finishes than their eighth and ninth respectively last year.
Sir John Kirwan — with support from assistant Sir Graham Henry — has been left to mould a raw squad, half of whom are new to this level.
The two knights have conjured a promising Blues pre-season campaign but that has only to quietened dire season predictions for the three-time champions.