SANZAR have announced the draw for the 2016 Super Rugby season which includes four new conferences, three new teams and two new countries.
The 18 teams will also compete for a new trophy with the final scheduled for Saturday August 6 in the 142nd match of the season.
The Super Rugby competition starts on Friday February 26 and runs until the end of May, when there is a break for the June Internationals, and will then resume in July.
Fans don't have long to wait before the action continues with the Lions travelling to Tokyo for a historic afternoon clash at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo; the first Super Rugby match to be played in Japan.
The new Argentinean team gets its maiden Super Rugby campaign underway in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs while the Port-Elizabeth-based Kings re-enter the competition with a clash against the Sharks at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
The Australasian Group features the Australian and New Zealand Conferences each comprising their existing five teams while the South African Group contains two Conferences with the Bulls, Cheetahs, Stormers and the Japanese team on one side and the Kings, Lions, Sharks and the Argentinean team on the other.
Teams will play six matches within their own Conference, five against an Australasian Conference, four against a South African Conference and will have two byes across the 17-week Regular Season.
The Regular Season will be followed by a knockout Super Rugby Finals Series featuring eight teams; the four conference winners plus the three next highest-ranked teams from the Australasian Group and the next highest-ranked team from the South African Group.
Conference winners will be seeded 1-4 based upon overall points from the Regular Season and the highest-ranked team will play at home in each match-up.
"As we stand eagerly on the cusp of a new era of Super Rugby, fans can look forward to the upcoming season with a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm,” said SANZAR Interim Chief Executive Brendan Morris.
"We are in the envious position to be delivering our great brand of rugby to new cities and international markets, unlocking a host of commercial opportunities and delivering the unbridled excitement of Super Rugby to a legion of new and existing fans.
"We are in the envious position to be delivering our great brand of rugby to new cities and international markets, unlocking a host of commercial opportunities and delivering the unbridled excitement of Super Rugby to a legion of new and existing fans.”
To lessen the travel burden on South African teams three of the Japanese entrant’s matches against SA teams will be played in Singapore.
The Cheetahs will add another first to the list by appearing at the Singapore National Stadium in round three followed by the Bulls (Round 5) and Stormers (Round 12).
"As successful as our competition has been in the past, we cannot rest on our laurels. We want to grow our fan base and ensure existing fans stay loving our game," added Morris.
"We will be working hard alongside our National Unions, teams, broadcasters and venues to keep finding new and innovative ways to ensure Super Rugby continues to be the best provincial rugby competition in the world both on and off the field."
The new-look competition will also be contested for a new trophy, crafted by Blue Sky Design. The chrome and gold-plated piece is intended to capture the prestige, grandeur and resilience of one of the world's toughest sporting competitions.
The 360-degree design features eight blade legs, representing the eight teams that will qualify for the Finals Series, arranged to provide an iconic representation of a rugby ball and evoke visual nostalgic links to the former trophy, now eternal property of the Highlanders.
The 13.5 kilogram prize features a flat base which caters for engraving and seamless expansion as more teams etch their name into Super Rugby history as champions of this prestigious competition in the coming years.
The Evolution of Super Rugby at a glance:
Expansion to 18 teams – with the addition of the Kings from South Africa and new teams from Japan and Argentina which will be unveiled following the Rugby World Cup.
Australasian Group: Australian Conference (Brumbies, Force, Rebels, Reds, Waratahs), New Zealand Conference (Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders Highlanders, Hurricanes)
South African Group: Africa Conference 1 (Bulls, Cheetahs, Stormers, Japanese Team), Africa Conference 2 (Kings, Lions, Sharks, Argentinean Team)
15 Regular Season games per team – (8 home/7 away or vice-versa over a two-year cycle)
Two byes per team
135 Regular Season and 7 Finals matches – (up from 120 and 5 currently)
Eight-team knockout Super Rugby Finals Series to be staged over three weeks – (5 qualifiers from the Australasian Group and 3 from the South African Group)
The four Conference winners automatically qualify for the Finals Series – along with the next three highest-ranked Australasian Group teams and the next highest-ranked South African Group team
CLICK HERE to download the draw