The 2019 Super Rugby season is almost upon us! These are the biggest pre-season talking points set to affect the Super Rugby markets. 

1. Will the Blues realise potential with MacDonald and Nonu on deck?

The Blues are Super Rugby’s great underachievers. A succession of big-name buys and coaching changes has failed to deliver a finals berth since 2011. The other four Kiwi outfits are on the first four lines of Super Rugby futures betting – the Blues are eighth favourites for the title at $26.

But the well-credentialled Leon MacDonald takes over as coach from former All Blacks teammate Tana Umaga, while the maligned franchise has also pulled off arguably the biggest recruitment coup of 2019. Two-time World Cup winner Ma’a Nonu could be the key to bringing out the best in a roster that includes Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko and Akira Ioane, Augustine Pulu and Patrick Tuipolotu.

The No.10 jersey again shapes as a problem spot, however.

After losing their last 19 games to their fellow New Zealand teams, picking up conference derby wins is crucial to the Blues’ hopes. They head into their Round 1 assignment against the Crusaders as $3.05 outsiders.

2. Are the Waratahs on course for back-to-back conference titles?

The Waratahs are $2.70 favourites to take out the Australian Conference. The Brumbies ($3.00) and Rebels ($3.75) are not far behind, while the Reds ($9.50) and Sunwovles ($41) shape as longshots.

Fronted by Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Rob Simmons and Nick Phipps, there’s little question the Waratahs have better balance and more world-class players in key positions than their rivals.

But the Brumbies are a threat on the strength of David Pocock alone, and their tight-five is comfortably the best and most experienced in the conference. They need to find ways to unleash backline trumps Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight more regularly.

The Rebels were on course for a historic finals berth in 2018 but faded late, missing out on for-and-against. They are the dark horse in the mix. But the Brad Thorn-coached Reds have lost plenty and added little – they look no chance of making an impression.

With wins over NZ teams as rare as hen’s teeth, conference derby wins will be worth their weight in gold. The Brumbies’ ($1.61) clash with the Rebels ($2.30) on Friday night could set the tone for both contenders’ campaigns.

3. Which Wallaby recruitment gambles will pay off?

Quade Cooper and Karmichael Hunt were teammates at the Reds last year. But both controversial, enigmatic veterans have been thrown lifelines by rival Australian outfits for 2019.

Cooper joins the Rebels – rated $26 title chances and $2.20 to make the finals – where it is hoped reuniting with Reds 2011 championship-winning halves partner Will Genia will rekindle his old magic.

It’s less obvious where Hunt fits into a full-strength Waratahs’ line-up. He could find himself coming off the bench for much of the season. The Waratahs, $13 to add to their 2014 Super Rugby triumph, will surely get more value from the returning Adam Ashley-Cooper.

James Slipper, an 86-Test Wallaby prop, joins the Brumbies’ ranks. They won just seven games last year, but look good value to win Over 8.5 games this year at $2.25. Winger Sefa Naivalu can’t save the Reds on his own but is a tantalising $81 to top the competition’s try charts.

4. Can anyone stop the Crusaders’ three-peat bid?

The Crusaders are the most successful franchise in Super Rugby history and are coming off dominant 2017-18 championship wins.

The South Island outfit streeted the field last year with a 14-2 regular-season record and are just $2.10 to top the New Zealand Conference again. They are $3.30 favourites to repeat the hat-trick of titles the franchise achieved from 1998-2000.

It all looks good for Scott Robertson’s side in 2019. With a couple of exceptions, they have retained a very stable – and super-high quality – squad stacked with All Blacks (and future All Blacks).

Get on the ’Saders to win it all again while they’re still this generously priced.

5. Will Lions get another free rider?

The Johannesburg-based Lions have topped the South African Conference for three straight seasons. Their ranking has helped them through to the last three Super Rugby finals – losing all three to Kiwi opposition.

The Lions have been backed into $1.53 to make it four straight conference titles, despite going backwards slightly in 2018. They finished the regular season with a 9-7 record (after going 14-1 in 2017), only finishing above the Jaguares due to bonus points.

The Lions have also lost a handful of key forwards to the UK, though their backline looks electric as ever. But $9.50 for the Lions to go one better on the past three seasons and win a maiden title doesn’t hold much value.

The Jaguares are tempting at $7.00 to top the conference after last year’s finals breakthrough, but they remain too flighty to get excited about. The Sharks are second-favourites at $6.00 but the Bulls loom as the smoky at $7.00 after recruiting strongly.