It's super to be in the running again
THE 24th season of the best provincial rugby competition in the world kicks off this weekend and I'm feeling very optimistic.
Australian rugby pretty much hit rock bottom last year when the Wallabies won just four Tests and we had only one team in the Super Rugby final top eight.
I'll be disappointed if we don't get at least two teams in the playoffs in 2019.
Last year the Queensland Reds had their most wins since 2013.
It may have been only six victories, but head coach Brad Thorn has a season behind him now and assistant coach Jim McKay has been lured back to Brisbane from Japan.
McKay, a former assistant to Ewen McKenzie at the Reds and the Wallabies, knows what it takes to win a title.
One of Australia's best defensive coaches, Peter Ryan, has also returned home and former Wallaby prop Cameron Lillicrap is the best scrum coach in Australia, according to Thorn.
The average age of the squad is 23 and with so many of the youngsters having got a taste of Super Rugby last year, expect a huge improvement from them.
Key players are Samu Kerevi, Jordan Petaia, Sefa Naivalu and whoever plays fly-half whether it's Hamish Stewart or Bryce Hegarty.
The pack is exciting with Taniela Tupou, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Izack Rodda, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Caleb Timu and Scott Higginbotham leading the way.
I don't know if they can go all the way, but they are good enough to make the top eight for the first time in years.
The Melbourne Rebels are still chasing their first spot in the playoffs. They've gained Quade Cooper, Campbell Magnay, Luke Jones and Isi Naisarani - and Matt Toomua will join them later in the season.
Coach Dave Wessels has signed a contract extension, so obviously believes in his squad.
It's one thing to have a great team on paper, but they still have to gel on the paddock.
That wasn't always the case last year.
Key players are those mentioned above as well as Will Genia, Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty, Jack Maddocks, Marika Koroibete, Jordan Uelese, Adam Coleman and Matt Philip.
The men from Melbourne are ready to take it to another level this year.
The Brumbies finished strongly last year, winning four of their final five games, but their slow start to the season cost them dearly.
They won just three of their opening 12 games.
Dan McKellar is now a second-year coach and Christian Leali'ifano has the captaincy to himself.
There is no shortage of quality forwards. David Pocock, Sam Carter and former Reds skipper James Slipper will be joined by Scott Sio, Allan Alaalatoa, Folau Faingaa, Rory Arnold, Rob Valetini, Tom Cusack, Pete Samu and Lachie McCaffrey. That's a formidable pack on paper.
The backline features Wallabies Joe Powell, Leali'ifano, Tevita Kuridrani, Henry Speight and Tom Banks, as well as former Chiefs' winger Tony Pulu.
If the Brumbies are faster out of the blocks this year, they could be part of the business end of the tournament.
That leaves the NSW Waratahs, our only team to make last year's semi-finals.
Head coach Daryl Gibson's side scored their most points in a season last year and made their first appearance in the playoffs since 2015.
The Tahs have added Adam Ashley-Cooper and Karmichael Hunt to the roster, and another interesting addition is "man mountain" Le Roux Roets, has has been plucked out of South Africa's Currie Cup.
Wallabies Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Tom Robertson, Ned Hannigan, Rob Simmons, Jack Dempsey and Michael Hooper will line up, and Damian Fitzpatrick, Jed Holloway and Will Miller should see plenty of action as well.
In the backs, Jake Gordon and Nick Phipps will battle for the No. 9 jersey.
Bernard Foley remains the first-choice 10, but young Mack Mason is ready to step up when required.
The midfield contenders are Hunt, Kurtley Beale, Lalakai Foketi and Ashley-Cooper.
In the back three, Israel Folau will likely stick to fullback, and there's healthy competition between Cameron Clark, Curtis Rona and Alex Newsome on the wings.
Like the other three Aussie sides, the Waratahs should also be a contender for a playoff spot. Bring it on.
The only place to watch every game of the 2019 Super Rugby LIVE, ad-break free during play and in HD is on Fox Sports.