The often maligned Australian Super Rugby conference has "turned the corner" after initially struggling to cope with its expansion to five teams, says Dave Rennie, the coach of back-to-back winners the Chiefs.
Australian sides had a relatively bountiful year against their New Zealand counterparts last year, winning 12 of 20 encounters in the regular season but losing both finals matches, and the astute New Zealander says there is "respect" for the Australians on the New Zealand side of the ditch.
"I think the Reds will be a strong side this year," Rennie told Fairfax Media.
"The Waratahs are building. On paper they've got an outstanding team. When they put it together they were tough and obviously they beat us [the Chiefs in round 10 in Sydney last year].
"You look at the Brumbies, they've got real clarity about how they play and are pretty smart.
"Then the Rebels and the Force, they bought in a lot of Kiwis and South Africans and so on to give them more depth, and that makes them tougher."
The Australian conference has in recent years been sneered at for its lack of depth, but although that was justified in the early years of the Melbourne Rebels' introduction as the fifth team, there were encouraging signs for Australian rugby in both the Super Rugby performances last year and the Wallabies' strong finish to last year's campaign.
"There's no doubt that New Zealand sides, right across the board, struggled against the Australians, and I guess we are wondering why that is, too," said Rennie, whose team also lost to the Reds and were pushed close by the Force and Rebels last year.
"We [New Zealand] teams play each other twice over here, and they are brutal those games, and Australian sides play a little bit different, and it is about having to adjust to that."
Asked whether Kiwi sides, even subconsciously, were guilty of taking the foot off the pedal against Australian outfits, Rennie was slightly equivocal.
"You'd hope not. You'd hope that wouldn't be the case," he said. "There's certainly a hell of a lot of respect for the Australian sides.
"But the [NZ] derbies are almost like All Black trials. There's a hell of a lot on the line for a lot of the players, so they are fiercely competitive and physical games. So it's about adjusting to some thing different.
"With the South Africans, they are big sides, they try and take you on physically.
"The Aussies tend to play a high-paced game, they are smart tactically and kick well."
The Reds get the first crack at the two-time champion Chiefs in a pre-season fixture in Toowoomba on Saturday week, potentially setting up another duel between Quade Cooper and Aaron Cruden, and while Rennie is too canny to indulge in talk of "world's best No.10" with Dan Carter taking a break from the game to recharge, he made clear his admiration for his All Blacks No.10.
Describing his "mana" (respect) within the Chiefs' playing group as "massive", Rennie said Cruden "was a pretty demanding character who set high standards for the group".
"When you talk about someone like [Hurricanes five-eighth] Beauden Barrett, Aaron has delivered two Super Rugby titles," Rennie said.
The story Australian Super Rugby no longer out of its depth, says Chiefs coach Dave Rennie first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.