A year after a franchise-best season which culminated in a finals appearance, things are lining up for another strong campaign for the Lions. But it's a tough road ahead of the Sunwolves and the Blues.

The Lions were the only side outside of New Zealand to seriously threaten for the title last year, and they have good reason to believe they can do the same this season.

In a well-known scheduling quirk, the Lions get the benefits of a schedule enjoyed by the Africa 1 conference last season; avoiding facing off against a New Zealand team throughout the whole regular season.

It is a big boost for the African 2 conference, with the Lions, Sharks, Kings and Jaguares set for a much easier, Kiwi-free path in 2017.

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The Lions have the easiest schedule in Super Rugby in 2017, as calculated by strength of schedule (SOS), a figure which calculates the difficulty of each team's opponents, when compared to other sides.

While it doesn't take into account travel, or player movement since last season, the strength of schedule analysis can provide a reasonable gauge of who will be in the toughest challenges this season, and who has a favourable ride.

Last season, the Stormers were the biggest beneficiaries - avoiding Kiwi teams until the playoffs, when they unsurprisingly got walloped. The Blues predictably had it toughest, having to play a slate of Kiwi teams, with the other four NZ franchises all making the playoffs.

This year, I slightly tweaked the simplistic formula. Instead of calculating the average wins per opponent faced, I used average points per opponent (APPO) in 2016, to incorporate the value of draws and bonus points, and make a greater distinction between good sides and poor sides.

This season, the Sharks project to be the team who could make it into the playoffs as a result of a favourable draw.

They face a schedule with an APPO of 28.9, second to only the already-tested Lions, at 27.6.

Expectedly, the Africa 2 teams have the cruisest schedules, meaning the lowly Kings could well jump clear of the Sunwolves, who will face the toughest schedule in Super Rugby, including a slew of Kiwi franchises.

As a statistical result of being the worst Kiwi team in 2016, the Blues have the toughest slate of the New Zealand sides, with the Highlanders marginally having the best schedule of the Kiwi franchises.

Like last year, the imbalanced schedule could be the difference between a deserving side making the playoffs, and poor team from the Africa 2 conference sneaking in.

In the meantime, keep the poor Sunwolves in your thoughts.

Strength of Schedule (By average points per opponent)

Sunwolves 39.9
Blues 38.4
Cheetahs 38.3
Rebels 37.8
Crusaders 37.6
Hurricanes 37.3

Force 37.3
Reds 36.9
Chiefs 36.9
Highlanders 36.6

Bulls 35.5
Brumbies 34.6
Waratahs 34.6
Stormers 34.3
Kings 33.4
Jaguares 31.6
Sharks 28.9
Lions 27.6