New teams, a new format, and an influx of heavyweight coaches herald the start of the inaugural Pro14.
The Cheetahs and Southern Kings, two franchises from South Africa, have been added to the competition after their removal from Super Rugby, bringing about a new two-conference structure.
There are storylines and talking points across the board – how will the decimated Kings take to life in Europe? Can ex-Leicester Tigers pillar Richard Cockerill “reinvent” struggling Edinburgh, and Bernard Jackman spark similar rejuvenation at the Dragons?
Will the much-vaunted Dave Rennie take Glasgow Warriors to new heights? And how will the champion Scarlets fare as they turn from hunter to hunted?
With the Pro14 beginning on 1 September, BBC Sport lays out the challenges ahead for each of the seven teams in Conference A, and the players to look out for along the way.
It has been a testing summer financially following the failure to come to an agreement with the Welsh Rugby Union over a possible temporary takeover.
The Blues board also opted, after signing South African lock Franco van der Merwe from Ulster, to release the player from his contract before he had linked up with the region.
That was a decision based on finances, but they then missed out on the capture of Wales and British and Irish Lions back Leigh Halfpenny, who joined the Scarlets.
They will look to put aside these tribulations this campaign, with head coach Danny Wilson now in his third season and Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards joining on a consultancy basis.
Captained again by Wales’ record cap-holder Gethin Jenkins, the aim will be to achieve Champions Cup qualification after just falling short in the last two seasons.
Previous Position: Seventh
Players in: Sion Bennett (Northampton Saints), Jack Roberts (Leicester Tigers), Damian Welch (Exeter Chiefs).
Players out: Cory Allen, Liam Belcher, Pele Cowley, Cam Dolan, Jarrad Hoeata, Marc Thomas.
One to watch: The Blues will be relying on youth this season and scrum-half Tomos Williams will be one of those looking to make an impression. An unused replacement in Wales’ summer tour win over Samoa, Williams has sheer explosive speed. Will first have to win his battle as regional number one with namesake Lloyd.
Head coach Danny Wilson: “Our main objective is firstly to try and bridge the gap from seventh to sixth to qualify for the Champions Cup. That would be an achievement in itself.
“But we want more than that. We want to be challenging for top four and knockout stages in the league.
“If we can keep our squad healthy as we did at the start of last season and towards the end, we showed we can beat anyone on our day. Consistency is what we are all aiming for.”
Connacht appeared to suffer something of a “hangover” from their remarkable Pro12 triumph in the 2015-16 season as they struggled throughout the last campaign to reach anything like the form they showed to secure their first major piece of silverware.
The loss of Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw was keenly felt and the announcement mid-season that head coach Pat Lam was to leave at the end of the campaign to take over at Bristol did little to help restore stability and continuity.
Connacht may find it tough going in Conference A, given the calibre of their opposition. The province saved their best form for Europe last term, almost capturing an unlikely place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, but drop down to the Challenge Cup this season.
New boss Kieran Keane was most recently assistant to Dave Rennie at the Chiefs, and is one of four New Zealanders in head coach roles across the Pro14. He has pledged that Connacht will play with the sort of expansive panache that propelled them to the title in 2016.
Previous position: Eighth
Players in: Cormac Brennan (academy), Jarad Butler (Brumbies), Denis Coulson (Grenoble), Andrew Deegan (NSW Waratahs), Peter McCabe (Munster), Conor McKeon (academy), James Mitchell (Sale Sharks), Pat O’Toole (academy), Rory Scholes (Edinburgh), Gavin Thornbury (Wanganui).
Players out: Marnitz Boshoff, John Cooney, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Ciaran Gaffney, Ronan Loughney, Ben Marshall, Rory Moloney, Shane O’Leary, Rory Parata, Danie Poolman, Danny Qualter, Josh Rowland, Lewis Stevenson.
Player to watch: Centre Bundee Aki’s impressive form in recent seasons has yielded calls for inclusion in the Irish squad, should he choose to declare for Ireland. Aki qualifies through three years of residency before the autumn internationals, but could also represent Samoa or New Zealand. Scrum-half Kieran Marmion and second-row Ultan Dillane remain pivotal figures too.
Head coach Kieran Keane: “I have had the chance to meet many people within Connacht Rugby and am immediately taken by the genuine passion they have for the people they represent and the ambition they have to achieve so much more.
“It was clear to me that Connacht is a good fit for me and I am looking forward to the challenge ahead.”
Of the two South African newcomers, the Cheetahs are the significantly better equipped for life in the Pro14.
Head coach Rory Duncan has an extensive and largely settled squad, with a smattering of Springboks, and unlike the Kings, has retained the bulk of his key players despite the loss of their Super Rugby status.
The Bloemfontein franchise, however, will have to spread their resources across two competitions – at least for the first two months of the Pro14 season – as they defend their Currie Cup title on home soil, meaning a 14-month workload for the players with scant opportunity to rest.
A high-altitude base in Bloemfontein should bolster their home advantage, but in their final Super Rugby campaign, they won just four from 15 matches, with only two teams conceding more tries.
Boks winger Raymond Rhule is set to join rival union Western Province, but Duncan still boasts plenty firepower in his backline. Francois Venter, Sergeal Peterson, Cecil Afrika and Rayno Benjamin are all potent attackers with international experience in XVs or sevens, while the elusive Makazole Mapimpi and Malcolm Jaer both arrive from Port Elizabeth.
The Cheetahs have also used their driving maul to good effect, and director of rugby Franco Smith, who spent six years in charge of Treviso, has spoken of the need to use ballast and flair amid the variant weather conditions a nine-month European season will present.
Previous position: N/A
Players in: Malcolm Jaer, Makazole Mapimpi (both Southern Kings)
Players out: Armandt Koster, Danie Mienie, Boom Prinsloo, Francois Uys
One to watch: Makazole Mapimpi was a searing rapier for the Kings in Super Rugby, contributing just shy of a quarter of their haul of tries last season, his final tally of 11 the third-highest in the tournament.
An extremely quick and powerful runner, Mapimpi is already off the mark for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup, and joins a host of dangerous back-three players in Bloemfontein.
Director of rugby Franco Smith: “I want to say we’ll call [the high altitude in Bloemfontein] our secret weapon. Of course it’s quite tough playing at high altitude coming from sea level, but there are ways of adapting to it.
“Our biggest challenge is going to be to keep on performing in the Currie Cup like we’re doing while playing in Europe. Therefore, to develop the younger players and get the total squad on the best level is our main challenge now, to make sure we put out the best product in both competitions, at least in the first six weeks of the Pro14.”
It is testament to Glasgow’s standing in European rugby that Dave Rennie, many a Kiwi’s pick to become the next All Blacks coach, has been lured to Scotstoun from the Chiefs.
His arrival, with Gregor Townsend’s elevation to the national team, heralds the most significant period of upheaval in the club’s recent history.
It also follows Warriors’ poorest domestic campaign since 2011 – the last time they failed to finish in the play-off positions.
Since his appointment last year, Rennie has been keen to deepen Glasgow’s player pool to accommodate the army of internationals who depart twice a season on Scotland duty.
Six of his 11 new signings have been added from the Super Rugby competition he knows so well, and at least four will not be lost during Test windows.
The high-pedigree additions include Scotland centre Huw Jones, former Hurricanes back-row Callum Gibbins, ex-Chief Lelia Masaga and much-vaunted fly-half Adam Hastings, son of national hero Gavin.
These arrivals, coupled with the continued emergence of home-grown rookies – Matt Fagerson, Lewis Wynne and George Horne among the most prominent – mean Glasgow boast as strong a squad as any in the league, in terms both of calibre and depth.
New captain Ryan Wilson is a hard-grafting, fun-loving family man, very much in the Rennie mould. The coach has been in Glasgow for less than a month, but Wilson admits it is already apparent the league title will be the target he sets his charges, and justifiably so.
Previous position: Sixth
Players in: Callum Gibbins (Hurricanes), Siua Halanukonuka (Highlanders), Adam Hastings (Bath), Ruaridh Jackson (Harlequins) Huw Jones, Oli Kebble (both Stormers), Lelia Masaga (Chiefs), Kiran McDonald (Hull), Robbie Nairn (Harlequins), Brandon Thomson (Stormers), George Turner (Edinburgh), Samuela Vunisa (Saracens)
Players out: Mark Bennett, Hugh Blake, Junior Bulumakau, Rory Clegg, Simone Favaro, Jarrod Firth, Corey Flynn, Ryan Grant, Grayson Hart, Langilangi Haupeakui, Nemia Kenatale, Sean Lamont, Fraser Lyle, Peter Murchie, Sila Puafisi, Gordon Reid, Josh Strauss, Hagen Schulte, Tijuee Uanivi
One to watch: Scottish rugby has long done a fine vintage in scrum-halves, and 22-year-old George Horne is the latest prodigy to make his mark in the professional ranks. The younger brother of Warriors and Scotland back Peter, Horne has honed his dazzling array of skills and devastating footwork on the Sevens World Series.
The half-back is a reliable place-kicker, and despite his modest 79kg fame, a terrier-like scrapper in the tackle. Glasgow are well-stocked at scrum-half, but Horne junior has started both pre-season friendlies and will be hard to displace when the competitive matches begin.
Head coach Dave Rennie: “We’ve got some good young kids coming through, so that’s important in those international windows. We had 21 players at a Scotland camp in August which shows how many guys could potentially be away.
“But I came into this with my eyes open. I’m well aware of the requirements around player welfare – some of those boys can only play four or five games in a row, so we’ve got to plan around it and try and ensure we’ve got a good side on the park each week even though we’re managing some players.”
The news that director of rugby Rassie Erasmus is to return to his native South Africa before the end of the year has sent Munster into something of a tailspin. Erasmus and defence coach Jacques Nienaber won acclaim for steering the club through an emotionally turbulent season following the tragic death of head coach Anthony Foley, leading them to a European Cup semi-final and the final of the Pro12.
The impending departure of the duo has cast a shadow on preparations for the new season and how the players respond to the uncertainty will be crucial with assistant coaches Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery expected to assume greater responsibility.
Munster have recruited well during the off-season but the departure of the talismanic Donnacha Ryan to Racing 92 has left them short of cover in the second row. They have a favourable start to the Pro14 with back-to-back home fixtures against Benetton Rugby and the Cheetahs.
Previous position: Beaten finalists
Players in: Chris Cloete (Southern Kings), Chris Farrell (Grenoble), Stephen Fitzgerald Dan Goggin (both academy), Gerbrandt Grobler (Racing 92), JJ Hanrahan (Northampton Saints), James Hart (Racing 92), Bill Johnston, Conor Oliver (both academy) Ciaran Parker (Sale Sharks), Brian Scott (academy).
Players out: Rory Burke, Cian Bohane, Mark Chisholm, Dave Foley, John Madigan, Peter McCabe, Donnacha Ryan, Francis Saili.
Player to watch: The return of prodigal son JJ Hanrahan will be intriguing to watch. After two injury-disrupted seasons with Northampton the versatile player will provide options across the Munster backline, and it will be interesting to see if he can play alongside fly-half Tyler Blyendaal as a second five-eighth.
Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, speaking to Pro14 rugby: “Last year was about having a good go and seeing where we end up.
“There are so many great coaches and quality players here at this club that the target would be to win trophies.
“Any team going into the second year with the same squad would be saying, ‘look, now we are trying to win silverware’.
“That doesn’t make it easier but the goals will immediately shift to that way of thinking. Then you have to back it up on the field.”
It was looking so positive for the Ospreys last season as they led the way in the first half of the league campaign. But their form tailed off towards the end and they missed their injured talismanic captain Alun Wyn Jones.
Steve Tandy’s men still made the play-offs, but lost to Munster in the semi-final match.
It has been a quiet recruitment drive and they will again rely on players such as British and Irish Lions Jones, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, who could be playing his last season at the Liberty Stadium with talk of an impending move to Northampton.
Previous position: Losing play-off semi-finalists
Players in: Cory Allen (Cardiff Blues), James Hook (Gloucester), Brian Mujati (Sale Sharks).
Players out: Tyler Ardron, Joe Bearman, Tom Grabham, Josh Matavesi, Jonathan Spratt, Dan Suter, Sam Underhill.
One to watch: The Ospreys will be hoping their British and Irish Lions quartet will shine again for the region and captain Alun Wyn Jones is at the heart of everything that is good about the region.
It is Jones’ testimonial year but the Wales skipper will aim to ensure there is no talk of his great career coming to an end yet.
Head coach Steve Tandy: “It’s about making improvements from last season. We finished in the top four, but things petered out towards the end and that was disappointing.
“For about 90% of the season we played well and we were riding high in the front end of the league. Hopefully we can put consistent performances together throughout the season and not taper off at any point in the year.
“Silverware would be really nice and we are in a really competitive league. The minimum requirement is to be in the top three of the conference for the play-off games.”
Following a summer of turmoil at the Italian club there has been a takeover by the Italian Rugby Federation, with the creation of what is effectively a new entity.
So, like the Dragons, Zebre will be looking for a vast improvement after propping up the table last season with just three wins – only once have they finished above bottom spot.
They too have a former Ireland international at the helm, with Michael Bradley taking over the coaching role, but he has been shorn of a host of Italian internationals, with Test caps such as Fedrico Ruzza and Josh Furno moving on.
Previous position: 12th
Players In: Maicol Azzolini (Fiamme Oro), Ciaran Gaffney (Connacht), Renato Giammarioli (Calvisano), Leonard Krumov (Viadana), Luhandre Luus (Calvisano), Matteo Minozzi (Calvisano), Sami Panico (Calvisano), Riccardo Raffaele (Calvisano), Dave Sisi (Bath), Roberto Tenga (Fiamme Oro), Eduardo Bello (Atlético de Rosario).
Players Out: Dion Berryman, Pietro Ceccarelli, Carlo Engelbrecht, Joshua Furno, Quintin Geldenhuys, Lloyd Greef, Edoardo Padovani, Bruno Postiglioni, Guillermo Roan, Federico Ruzza, Sidney Tobias, Dries van Schalkwyk, Kayle van Zyl.
One to watch: Zebre need rising stars and all-action back-rower Maxime Mbanda could well fall into that bracket.
Born in Rome to an Italian-Congolese family, Mbanda has won 11 Italy caps since making his Test debut in 2016 after being handed his chance by Azzurri coach Conor O’Shea.
Head coach Michael Bradley: “The potential is probably similar to the Dragons with the union involvement. I am looking forward to the new season and seeing where it brings us.
“It has been difficult. First of all we must clear everything off the table that has been a distraction.
“The players’ jobs will be on the pitch to produce what they can in a positive environment and we will see what happens.
“Having Zebre and Treviso in the Pro14 is key to the survival of professional rugby in Italy.”