SYDNEY, Feb 9 (Reuters) - A World Cup year is always a watershed in rugby but beyond the usual retirements and departures, it is fair to say the southern hemisphere game will never be the same again after 15 teams battle it out for the 20th Super Rugby title.
The annual provincial championship has undergone plenty of changes since 12 teams from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia kicked off the debut season in 1996 but nothing as radical as the plans for 2016.
The addition of teams from Argentina and Japan as well as another outfit from the land of the Springbok will transform the reach and balance of the championship.
It is not only in terms of format that the 2015 season will mark the end of an era, however, with luminaries Dan Carter and Richie McCaw likely to pull on the red shirt of the Canterbury Crusaders for the final time.
The Crusaders came agonisingly close to winning their eighth championship last season until a last-gasp penalty handed a maiden title to the New South Wales Waratahs and they will be desperate to end their seven-year trophy drought this season.
Todd Blackadder’s team are usually New Zealand’s best chance of a title but the 2012 and 2013 champion Waikato Chiefs have Sonny Bill Williams back in the centres and have made a couple of other quality additions to their backline.
Wellington Hurricanes always appear to have the raw talent to mount a title challenge and if the Auckland Blues can match their performances at Eden Park with their road form, they too will be dangerous.
Australia’s financial problems means they face an exodus of talent once the lure of playing for the Wallabies at the World Cup is gone and this season could be the last chance for fans to see Israel Folau playing the 15-man code Down Under.
Fullback Folau’s tries helped the Waratahs to the title last year and they should still be the team to beat under Michael Cheika, who will combine his provincial duties with preparing the national team for the World Cup.
The ACT Brumbies, semi-finalists last year, have lost skipper Ben Mowen and a key member of the backroom staff, Laurie Fisher, but will welcome back the talent and leadership of flanker David Pocock after nearly two years on the sidelines.
Western Force were the surprise package of 2014 but will do well to win as many close matches as they did last year, while the Queensland Reds hopes of a revival suffered a blow when they lost flyhalf Quade Cooper to injury for three months.
The Reds won the title in the last World Cup year in 2011 and will be banking on a big impact from code-hopping back Karmichael Hunt, winger James O‘Connor and former All Black loose forward Adam Thomson.
The Sharks ran away with the South African conference last year before falling to the Crusaders in the semi-finals and they again look like the best chance of a first champion from Africa since the Bulls won their third title in 2010.
South Africa’s talent pool has been depleted most by the lure of the riches of Europe but new Sharks coach Gary Gold has reversed the trend by bringing in prop Matt Stevens, lock Mouritz Botha and winger Jack Wilson from English club Saracens.
Cape Town-based Stormers are already wrestling with a lengthy injury list and might struggle to send coach Allister Coetzee off to Japan triumphant at the end of the season.
The Bulls have also struggled to impose themselves on teams away from Pretoria but with Pierre Spies returning to their back row after missing last season and Handre Pollard leading the backline will cause problems for plenty of teams. (Editing by Patrick Johnston)