Johannesburg - Rugby World Cup-winning coach Jake White will begin his bid to bring the Super Rugby trophy back to South Africa when he leads the Sharks against the Bulls in a high-profile opener on Saturday.
White quit the Brumbies after being overlooked for the Australia national job last year, but he is widely tipped to be the man to end the Sharks' heartbreak after three final defeats.
White is now at the helm of a Springbok-packed line-up and again in partnership with John Smit, his victorious captain at the 2007 World Cup and the Sharks' chief executive.
The Bulls were the last South African team to win the southern hemisphere inter-provincial title when they claimed it for the third time in 2010, and White led the Brumbies to last year's final against the Chiefs.
And the Sharks will be favourites against the Bulls, hit by an exodus of players, when the season starts with a South African double-header this weekend. The Cheetahs play the Lions in Saturday's other game.
"It is crucial to start well and it is a home game as well," White told the Sharks' website. "People have always spoken about the fact that you have to win your home games to give yourself a chance."
The Sharks underperformed last year, finishing eighth, but much faith is being placed in the motivational skills of White, famous for his four-season transformation of the Springboks into world champions.
Among their main rivals will be New Zealand's Chiefs, who are seeking a record-equalling third consecutive title having crushed the Sharks and edged White's Brumbies in the last two finals.
Seven-time champions the Crusaders, also one of the top contenders, begin their bid for a first title in six campaigns when they host the Chiefs next weekend.
The Brumbies may also fire again under White's replacement, Wallabies icon Stephen Larkham, and the Auckland Blues are ones to watch after scooping league convert Benji Marshall among a host of new acquisitions.
Australia's Reds, the 2011 champions, and Stormers of South Africa are other potential top-half teams, although it is difficult to imagine either as champions.
The Bulls have been drastically weakened by the loss of master goal-kicker Morne Steyn, one of a host of players gone to high-paying Europe and Japan, while welcoming back Victor Matfield from a two-year retirement.
The celebrated lock, now 36, returns to action with his sights set on the 2015 World Cup.
Meanwhile, flank Shalk Burger is back with the Western Stormers after two years out with injuries and a life-threatening illness.
All Blacks and Crusaders superstar Dan Carter will miss most of the seven-month marathon as he takes a sabbatical with the World Cup in mind, but Kiwi skipper Richie McCaw will be available from the start of the season.
The Crusaders start with the February 21 home fixture against the Chiefs - a repeat of a thrilling semi-final last year that the Chiefs outfit won by a point at their Hamilton fortress.
The Canterbury team have drafted in flyhalf Colin Slade from the Highlanders and he will compete with Tyler Bleyendaal and Tom Taylor for the role usually filled by Carter.
The Chiefs have lost lock Craig Clarke and Richard Kahui, among others, but welcome All Blacks great Mils Muliaina and Robbie Fruean as well as forwards Jamie Mackintosh and Kane Thompson.
Apart from Marshall, All Blacks centre Nonu is a potentially game-changing arrival for John Kirwan's Blues, who have also hired forwards Tony Woodcock and Jerome Kaino.
Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 J J Engelbrecht, 12 Jan
Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Louis Fouché, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8
Pierre Spies (captain), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Flip vd
Merwe, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18
Victor Matfield, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Handré
Pollard, 22 Ulrich Beyers, 23 Marcel vd Merwe