After the announcement of next year's squads for the Super 15, our top rugby writer looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the Kiwi sides.
The Blues leadership is unchanged with captain Keven Mealamu and coach Pat Lam in charge of the troops once more. They finished fourth last season as the expanded competition was unfurled, losing to the eventual Reds champions in the semifinals.
Fullback Jared Payne is the biggest loss in the backs while John Afoa's departure leaves a gap with his versatile scrummaging.
The inclusion of internationals Piri Weepu, Ma'a Nonu and Rudi Wulf boosts the back division which looks to be heavy on talent out wide but leaner on the directors. Weepu wants to play five-eighths outside Alby Mathewson and if they stay healthy and in form, the Blues will fare strongly.
However if Weepu has to play halfback then Gareth Anscombe or Michael Hobbs will need to step up at five-eighths.
Four of the pack played little part last year because of injury but Brad Mika, Daniel Braid, Liaki Moli and Filo Paulo return to a group which has enough experience, sting and skill to cope with this competition.
Whether they have enough motivation remains the question after eight of them tasted the highs of the World Cup triumph.
Seven loose forwards and no Colin Bourke marked the arrival of new coach Dave Rennie. He's lost or jettisoned Bourke, Aled de Malmanche, Mike Delany, Stephen Donald, Ben May, Taniela Moa, Mils Muliaina, Culum Retallick, Isaac Ross, Dwayne Sweeney, Save Tokula, Hayden Triggs, Tana Umaga and Nathan White from last year's group.
That's some absentee list but Rennie and his assistants have grabbed rising talent like Declan O'Donnell and Sam Cane, headline acts like Sonny Bill Williams, seasoned professionals like Kane Thompson, Mahonri Schwalger and hard workers like Alex Bradley.
Rennie seems able to conjure up performances from less-fancied groups so he should be a strong fit for his first year at this level, with a side that finished last in the NZ pool.
The acid will come on young men like prop Ben Afeaki, Fritz Lee, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Tim Nanai-Williams to lift their levels even higher to reach those of 11 past or current internationals who inhabit the group. The questions will come about the scrum and lineout work. If those are solid, then expect variations of a ruck'n' run style, movement and skill which will ask plenty of fitness questions of the opposition.
Take a deep breath Hurricanes followers and pray that Mark Hammett can find some magic bullets amongst his squad.
A serviceable group of Tim Bateman, Tusi Pisi, Chris Smylie, Jack Lam, Ben May, Tristan Moran and David Hall have been called up from round the traps to join those who inhabit the rugby regions under the Hurricanes umbrella.
Cory Jane, Conrad Smith and Victor Vito are the sole remnants of the All Blacks who won the World Cup as others have bailed to other franchises.
Rancour bedevilled Hammett's first season when the Canes laboured to fourth and showed little production from the "names" in their side.
They will be the no names next year and if Hammett and sidekick Alama Ieremia squeeze rising results and standards from their squad they will be doing extra well for the franchise and their coaching CVs.
There are 23 players returning from last year who must have impressed Hammett enough to believe he can wring strong work from them next season.
Then there are new faces like Bradley Shields, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara and Julian Savea bringing potential but no guarantees.
They need time to develop as do many others but the Super 15 fields are a tough arena for rugby schooling and this looks another rugged year for the Canes.
The Crusaders are favoured by punters to produce another title in this first season of the expanded programme which starts in February, breaks in June for three tests against Ireland and then heads for a final in the first week of August.
They can put out an entirely All Black pack and a backline only without test players at second, centre and wing. It is hard to argue against that spread of talent and a squad which will have a home ground to service after the earthquake dramas of last season.
Sean Maitland, Robbie Fruean and Ryan Crotty would have filled wing, centre and second roles for a number of sides at the recent World Cup and will be pushing for those honours again if they and the Crusaders flourish in 2012 under the repeat command of Todd Blackadder, Daryl Gibson and Dave Hewitt.
Medical reports on Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter could deliver a speedhump but Matt Todd and Tyler Bleyendaal are strong options to deputise when necessary.
Other new picks expected to rattle a few cages will be goalkicking midfield back Tom Taylor and looseforward Luke Whitelock who captained the NZ Colts this season. His selection means all four Whitelock brothers, George, Sam, Adam and Luke are in the squad, alongside the Franks brothers.
Former All Black lock Tom Donnelly has transferred into the squad with Ross Kennedy who has been playing in South Africa while Sonny Bill Williams is the only serious departure before the side's opening game against the Blues at Eden Park on February 24.
If there was a feelgood story in 2011, it was the Highlanders who finished third out of the New Zealand sides under new leader Jamie Joseph. They kicked out of the gates hard and fast, beating the Hurricanes, Chiefs and then the Bulls away.
Seven defeats in their last eight games dented some of the progress but they had won new respect.
Halani Aulika, Tom Donnelly, Brayden Mitchell, James Paterson, Robbie Robinson, Sean Romans, Matt Saunders, Mahonri Schwalger, Alando Soakai, David Te Moana and Joe Tuineau have gone with the entry list filled by Andrew Hore, Ma'afu Fia, Culum Retallick, Doug Tietjens, James Haskell, Chris Noakes, Tamati Ellison, Kade Poki and Hosea Gear, leaving the squad with 10 past or present test players.
Hore, Jarrad Hoeata and Adam Thomson need to be the spine of the pack with Jimmy Cowan, Colin Slade, Ellison, Gear and Ben Smith offering some backline potential.
Coach Joseph demanded plenty from his freshies last season and will ask even more this time, especially from a tight five which does have some uncertain edges to it. If Slade stays out of the casualty ward his presence should bring promise while Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga could be an enterprising new halfback/five-eighths combo.
Joseph lamented that there were just two Otago players in the squad but said that was the reality of franchise contracting. It was a sign of the times as well that they had signed England No 8 James Haskell who would join the group after completing his current stint in Japan.By Wynne Gray Email Wynne