Hurricanes can reign in revamped Super Rugby
Champion Crusaders should also go well again
New Zealand sides dominated last year's Super Rugby tournament, and with a change in format this year they could be even more favoured.
The number of teams has been reduced from 18 to 15, with the Force from Western Australia and South African sides Cheetahs and Kings axed, so the structure has been streamlined from four conferences to three, based around New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
The teams play their conference rivals twice and teams from other conferences just once, for a total of 16 games, but there is no repeat of the quirk last season where the Australian teams had to play all the New Zealand powerhouses while the South African teams got off far more lightly.
What that should mean is that the gap between the Australian and South African teams will narrow but the gulf between New Zealand and the rest could get even bigger.
The Crusaders and Hurricanes, winners in 2017 and 2016, rightly top the grand final market, while the Lions, beaten finalists last year, look too short in the betting at 6-1 as they are sure to face a tougher campaign.
Preference is for the Canes, who have a star-studded line-up and will want to give departing head coach Chris Boyd the perfect send-off.
Hurricanes to win grand final
1pt 4-1 general
New Zealand Conference
2017 9th Regular-season record P15 W7 L7 D1
Inconsistency has hampered the Auckland-based side but they boast two of the tournament's biggest stars in their backline in Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane.
2017 Losing semi-finalists Regular-season record P15 W12 L2 D1
Winners in 2012 and 2013, the Chiefs have reached the knockout stage every season since then. Damian McKenzie, the All Blacks' first-choice full-back in 2017, is the man to watch at fly-half.
2017 Grand final winners Regular-season record P15 W14 L1
The Canterbury outfit landed their first title in nine years last season and have a settled squad with no departures of note, although there is a lack of international quality in the halves. All Blacks skipper Kieran Read will miss the opening weeks through injury.
2017 Losing quarter-finalists Regular-season record P15 W11 L4
Aaron Mauger, who parted company with Leicester after a brief spell in charge, takes the reins. Wasps fans will be keen to see fly-half Lima Sopoaga in action in his final campaign before moving to the Ricoh Arena.
2017 Losing semi-finalists Regular-season record P15 W12 L3
All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett pulls the strings and there's firepower out wide in Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder. Coach Chris Boyd, who guided the Canes to the title in 2016, heads to Northampton in the summer.
2017 Beaten quarter-finalists Regular-season record P15 W6 L9
The most successful Australian side in 2017 still lagged a long way behind their New Zealand rivals. They have lost some big names but flanker David Pocock returns from a spell away from the game and Christian Lealiifano returns from Ulster in fine form.
2017 18th Regular-season record P15 W1 D1 L13
The Melbourne side finished bottom of the pile with one victory, but new coach David Wessels has brought in reinforcements from his former team, the now folded Western Force. Wallaby scrum-half Will Genia has joined from Stade Francais.
2017 14th Regular-season record P15 W4 L11
A tough fixture list saw the Reds start with one win in seven last season and they have lost a few big names including hooker Stephen Moore. With no headline arrivals, the Queensland side will hope their young, homegrown talent can prosper.
2017 17th Regular-season record P15 W2 L13
Japan head coach and former Highlanders boss Jamie Joseph takes charge, but the Japanese side face a tough transition from a South African section to the Australia conference. Japan captain Michael Leitch joins from the Chiefs.
2017 16th Regular-season record P15 W4 L11
Last season was the Tahs' worst for ten years. Kurtley Beale is back to share playmaking duties with Wallaby fly-half Bernard Foley, while Israel Folau, who led the way with nine tries last season, is always exciting to watch.
South Africa Conference
2017 15th Regular-season record P15 W4 L11
Former All Blacks coach John Mitchell is at the helm in Pretoria after the three-time winners suffered one of their worst seasons. Fly-half Handre Pollard will be a key player but they have a lot of ground to make up.
2017 10th Regular-season record P15 W7 L8
Pumas great Mario Ledesma, who made such a big impact as Australia's scrum coach, takes over as head coach for the Argentinian franchise. Always tough at home, Los Jaguares have scrum-half Tomas Cubelli back from the Brumbies.
2017 Runners-up Regular-season record P15 W14 L1
Last year's beaten finalists topped the regular-season standings to earn a home final in Johannesburg, where they went down 25-17 to the Crusaders. They were convincing and dominant in their conference but did not face any Kiwi opponents until the semi-final. Fly-half Elton Jantjies has established himself as the Springboks' first choice.
2017 Losing quarter-finalists Regular-season record P15 W9 L5 D1
The Durban franchise reached the quarter-finals, where they were only narrowly beaten. Exciting winger Makazole Mapimpi, top tryscorer in the Pro14 this season with the Cheetahs, has been snapped up.
2017 Losing quarter-finalists Regular-season record P15 W10 L5
After a fast start the Stormers made the quarter-finals, where they lost to the Chiefs for the second year in a row. They have lost key players while Eben Etzebeth and Jean-Luc du Plessis are injured for the start of the campaign.
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