The 2017 Super Rugby tournament kicks-off on Thursday, 23 February with the Melbourne Rebels hosting the Blues at AAMI Park in Melbourne.
The Thursday night kick-off is a first for Super Rugby and is followed a week later by another Thursday night match between Western Force and the Reds in Perth at nib Stadium.
The defending champions, the Wellington based Hurricanes will start off their title defence in Tokyo against the Sunwolves. 2016 Australian conference winners the ACT based Brumbies will play the Canterbury based Crusaders in Christchurch.
The two South African Conference winners in 2016, the Johannesburg-based Lions and Cape Town-based Stormers, will play the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs and Pretoria-based Bulls respectively.
It will be the second season for the 17-round, four-conference tournament structure that sees each team play 15 matches and have two byes. As in 2016 each team will play six matches within its own conference and nine matches against other conference teams.
In its inaugural year the 18-team tournament produced some wonderful rugby where analysis of the new bonus point system showed it provided an increased level of competitiveness and rewarded those teams with an attacking mindset.
Despite the increase in the number of matches on previous years the average number of points scored per match increased from 45.3 to 52.0 while tries were up from 5.1 to 6.4 per match.
The 17-round regular season and the finals series produced a final in Wellington between the two best teams in the tournament, the Hurricanes and Lions, highlighting the integrity of the tournament structure. The Hurricanes were the fourth new champion in the last five years of Super Rugby thereby securing a clean sweep of New Zealand teams having won the Super Rugby competition since its inception, and again highlighting the competitiveness of the tournament.
The 2017 June Test window and in particular the British and Irish Lions series in New Zealand has an impact on the match schedule. Fixtures in early June and July have therefore been scheduled around the various June Tests and the matches between the British and Irish Lions and the five New Zealand Super Rugby teams.
SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos said: “The new season is set to be another enthralling, action-packed one as we enter the second year of the 18-team conference-style tournament.”
“The tournament saw some fantastic rugby last year and we look forward in particular to the continued development of the new franchises that added exciting new territories and colour to the tournament.
“The schedule will see four Sunwolves matches played in Tokyo and three matches in Singapore, while eight matches will be hosted by the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. Both these teams made their Super Rugby debuts in 2016, with the Kings from South Africa returning after their brief spell in 2013.
“It is anticipated that all 3 teams will be better for the experience of 2016 as we look forward to seeing their continued improvement. Super Rugby continues to be the toughest rugby tournament in the world given the high level, week-to-week competition and the travelling that is undertaken.
“We enjoyed a global audience of just over 50 million viewers for the 20th edition of Super Rugby with just over 2 million fans attending the matches.
“I would like to say a big thank you to all the fans and supporters for their support through 2016 and look forward to having our competition entertain and entice you through 2017.”