WELLINGTON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The long winter wait for fans of free-flowing southern hemisphere rugby comes to an end a little earlier than usual this weekend when what looks like being wide open battle for the 2013 Super Rugby title gets underway.
Over six gruelling months, hundreds of rugby players will squeeze their hulking frames into aircraft seats and rack up thousands of air miles to take part in 130 matches which will determine the pre-eminent provincial side south of the equator.
Australia alone gets the season underway this weekend but the smart money will again be on the champions emerging from either the New Zealand or South Africa conferences - as they have in all but three of the 17 years of the competition.
The Waikato Chiefs may have lost a little stardust with the return of Sonny Bill Williams to rugby league but their stunning title triumph last year was also built on grunt up front and there will be plenty of that still in 2013.
The bookmakers unsurprisingly make the seven-times champion Canterbury Crusaders favourites, but the upstart Otago Highlanders will provide another South Island challenge if they can sustain their challenge over a whole season.
The South Africa conference will boast a new team in the Southern Kings but their title challenge is again likely to come from the Sharks, runners up for the fourth time last year, as well as the Stormers, while no one will ever write off the Bulls.
The British and Irish Lions tour looms large over the competition in Australia, where the depth of the five teams will be sorely tested.
Warren Gatland's team arrive in Australia in early June for a five-week tour that includes matches against all five Super Rugby sides and three tests against the Wallabies.
The timing of the tour has necessitated a re-jigging of the fixtures list with Australian sides beginning this weekend, while teams in New Zealand and South Africa will get underway next week.
There will also be further split rounds around the June international window and any injuries sustained in that period could prove crucial when the competition resumes.
Critics of the expansion of the competition from 12 to 14, then 15 teams in 2011, have pointed to the lack of resources in Australia, where the sport competes with three other football codes.
Results on the field supported those arguments last year when just one team, the 2011 champion Queensland Reds, made the playoffs.
The Reds finished third courtesy of winning the Australian conference, but their final points tally of 58 was only the fifth-best in the competition.
ACT Brumbies enjoyed a renaissance under World Cup-winning coach Jake White but were pipped for the Australian title in the final game of the season.
The other Australian teams finished in the bottom third with the Wallabies-packed New South Wales Waratahs lurching to just four wins in their worst-ever season to finish 11th.
The Melbourne Rebels finished 13th, while the Western Force were 14th and the Lions tour was something that Australia's players and coaches are aware will be a factor this season.
"There's a possibility we could lose 10 players for a Super rugby game, which would be tough," Waratahs skipper Dave Dennis told Reuters in Melbourne.
"It's just something you've got to deal with. You can't have the best of both worlds... a Lions tour is only every 12 years."
While Australia's teams could struggle, the newest entrant to the competition, the Southern Kings, will be out to justify their presence in their debut season.
The Port Elizabeth-based Kings, an amalgam of provinces from the Eastern Cape region, have been trying to get into the Super Rugby competition since at least 2007.
They were included this year after the South African Rugby Union said the lowest-finishing team from the 2012 season would be relegated. The Johannesburg-based Lions finished last and dropped out of the competition.
The Lions will play a two-legged playoff against the team that finishes bottom of the South African conference for entry to the 2014 competition.
While the Kings will be battling to survive, New Zealand's two southernmost franchises have emerged as early favourites to take the title from the Chiefs.
The Highlanders, who have started well before fading in the last two seasons, have added three World Cup-winning All Blacks - Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu and Brad Thorn - to their squad.
The Crusaders find themselves under pressure to claim their first championship since 2008 and coach Todd Blackadder has promised a more attacking focus this year.
While the Crusaders will be without All Blacks captain Richie McCaw for much of the season as he takes a six-month break from rugby, their depth is expected to hold up better than any other team.
The most intriguing question in New Zealand for 2013 will be the performance of the young Auckland Blues side under new coach John Kirwan.
Kirwan has introduced 16 new players to his squad, with the key focus on youth. While few expect them to challenge for the title, they should improve on last year's 12th-place finish. (additional reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne, editing by Nick Mulvenney)
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