BRISBANE - Weak cousins no more, Australia's maligned Super Rugby conference heads into the 2014 season respected and boasting three genuine contenders.
Last year's runners-up, the Brumbies, 2011 champions Queensland and a Wallabies-laden NSW Waratahs all hold justifiable expectations they can win a dogfight for the Aussie conference and take out the world rugby's biggest provincial competition.
It will surprise no one and amuse many that perennial under-achievers NSW are once again among the favourites for the 15-team title.
But it also says a lot about their roster, headlined by Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale, and coach Michael Cheika's ability to set a strong launch pad in 2013 by addressing team culture and adopting a dynamic attacking game.
The 'Tahs improvement, the Brumbies' near dream finish - run down 27-22 by the Chiefs in the 2013 decider — and the Reds' continued finals success haven't escaped the attention of their South African and New Zealand rivals. While Springbok fans and Kiwis have criticised Australia for being the weakest of the three conferences since the Melbourne Rebels were admitted in 2011, opinions are changing.
Championship-winning Chiefs coach Dave Rennie observed in the pre-season that the Australian conference had "turned the corner".
On the whole, Kiwi teams lost 12 of the 20 home-and-away matches against trans-Tasman rivals in 2013 and Rennie underlined that Aussie sides regained any respect that may have been lost.
Wallabies coach and ex-Reds boss Ewen McKenzie agrees there's been improvement across the board.
"It goes in cycles," McKenzie told AAP. "I think there's a lot of good stuff going on. Each of the teams are pretty well organised in the way they're being run.
"I think across the board there is good depth."
Although many expect a battle between the Waratahs, Brumbies and Reds for the local conference honours, McKenzie cautioned anyone from writing off the battling Rebels and Western Force.
A gritty, new-look Melbourne appear to be making strides under new coach Tony McGahan, a success at Munster in Ireland, while the Force have an impressive amount of depth and competition for places.
"I don't think there will be any easy games in the Australian conference," McKenzie said.
South Africa's conference kicks off the competition this weekend and it promises to be an intense four-way battle between White's Sharks, the Stormers, Cheetahs and Bulls.