The 2018 Super Rugby season may have officially opened last weekend with a pair of South African Conference matches, but this coming weekend really feels like the beginning of the season.
Week 2 sees seven matches in the pared down competition, with derbies aplenty as the teams begin the yearlong process of determining a new champion.
With that in mind it feels like a good time to throw out a prediction article looking at the conference winners in 2018.
New Zealand - Crusaders
It feels like this is the toughest conference to call because all five New Zealand Conference sides - and yes that includes the Blues - have the firepower to inflict damage over the course of 2018.
While I wanted to put the Chiefs (they have lost too much quality to Europe) or the Hurricanes (their defense is still a huge issue) over the line here, it is just too hard to pick against the Crusaders. Their forward pack is the best in the competition and they have suffered no major losses to the team that won it all last year. What makes the Crusaders different is their insane level of consistency and the fact they never beat themselves.
The question mark here is the injuries that they will be carrying into the season, with the likes of Kieran Read, Owen Franks, and Joe Moody all out until mid-April. The flip side of that is that these players will then be rested and ready to go as the season hits its stride.
Until someone steps up and knocks the Christchurch side off of their pedestal, they have to be the choice.
Australia - Brumbies
It looks to be a two-horse race in Australia as the Brumbies and the Waratahs are head and shoulders above the other three teams because of their consistency. The Rebels - in particular - have so many new faces to work into their team after picking up half of the Western Force's dissolved roster.
What the Brumbies really have going for them is that the players that have added to an already capable squad are guys that will fit in and hit the ground running. Christian Lealiifano was outstanding over the winter in 16 games for Ulster, while David Pocock returning from his Australian rugby sabbatical is obviously massive.
The 'Tahs will compete - especially if Kurtley Beale continues his career resurgence - but the Brumbies should have enough to get over the line.
South Africa - Lions
It is hard to look past the Lions in South Africa, but it is also unlikely that the team will be as utterly dominant as they were in 2017. Last season they lost just once in the entire regular season, ensuring home games throughout the playoffs and almost riding that momentum to the Super Rugby crown.
The Lions beat the Sharks in Week 1 this year, but they have a couple of questions to answer as the season rolls on. With coach Johan Ackermann and son Ruan now both at Gloucester, will new coach Swys de Bruin have the answers when times get tough? Also, can they find a replacement for star scrum-half Faf de Klerk?
The Sharks will be their closest challengers, with the other three teams in the conference still looking a little off of the pace.
2018 Super Rugby Champion - Crusaders
It may be a boring choice, but it is the logical one. The one caveat to this is that if a South African team is able to secure home games all the way to the final - as the Lions did last year - then that gives that side a massive advantage.
Entering the season though. the Crusaders look to be the team to beat in 2018.
Do you agree with these predictions? Let us know in the comments!