By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Super Rugby AU started life as a hastily-organised stopgap last year but its second season, which kicks off on Friday, is a cornerstone of Rugby Australia's grand project to re-engage the public in the sport.
A prime time double-header in Brisbane and Perth opens the season with the matches showcased by new broadcast partners in a deal that will offer a free-to-air element for the first time in a generation.
The new coronavirus pandemic that brought an end to 24 years of international Super Rugby in April last year could still have a say in the matter, but organisers will be hoping for 12 weeks of quality rugby played in front of sizeable crowds.
More law variations have been introduced to try to make the game more entertaining, including a "golden try" extra time rule and instructions for referees to limit repeated scrum resets -- long a bugbear of fans of the rival league code.
Ultimately the success of the season will be judged not just by public engagement but by the performances of the Wallabies, the twice world champions who have slumped to fifth in the world rankings after a few lean years.
There should be an earlier test of the competitiveness of Australian rugby against the New Zealand Super Rugby teams in a Trans-Tasman competition which is scheduled to follow in May and June, travel restrictions permitting.
Before that, though, it will be all about domestic bragging rights as the Queensland Reds, New South Wales Waratahs, Melbourne Rebels and Western Force look to knock inaugural champions ACT Brumbies off their perch.
The young squad assembled by Reds coach Brad Thorn look most likely to achieve that feat as they build experience to add to some exciting raw talent in their ranks.
Losing finalists last year, the Reds open their campaign against the Waratahs in the latest edition of an inter-state rivalry that goes back to 1882 -- a reminder of the deep roots of the game in Australia.
The Brumbies, who have kept their title-winning squad pretty much intact, face the long trip to Western Australia for their season-opener against Western Force.
The Force have recruited strongly after going winless last season when they rode to the rescue of the domestic competition at short notice just three years after being axed from Super Rugby.
Having played their entire campaign on the road because of state border closures, the Force will be hoping for a passionate crowd on Friday as Super Rugby returns to Perth for the first time since 2017.
The Rebels, who have a bye for the first round, were also exiled last year and only last Friday made a midnight dash for the state border in a 40-car convoy ahead of a snap five-day coronavirus lockdown in Victoria.
Rugby Australia will be desperately hoping that the health crisis will not be a major talking point again this season as they look to build the foundations for a revival of the once-proud sport.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)