The Emirates Lions will make history by becoming the first team to play a Vodacom Super Rugby match in Japan when the new-era, 18-team competition kicks-off in February 2016.
They will face the Tokyo-based franchise at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium on the opening Saturday of the season (February 27) as confirmed by the draw, which was issued by SANZAR today (Monday).
The Toyota Cheetahs will similarly become the first team to play the new entrant from Argentina, when they host the Buenos Aires-based team in Bloemfontein a few hours earlier on the competition’s opening evening, Friday, February 26.
The Kings return to the competition with a mouth-watering coastal derby against The Cell C Sharks, while the opening round is completed for South African teams with a North-South Derby at DHL Newlands with the DHL Stormers hosting the Vodacom Bulls.
The six South African teams are grouped in two African pools along with the new entrants from Japan and Argentina.
The existing ten Australasian teams will be divided into New Zealand and Australian pools.
The winners of each pool will earn automatic entry to the knockout Vodacom Super Rugby Finals Series. The next highest-ranked team from the African Conference will also be placed in the Finals Series along with the three next highest-ranked teams from Australasian Conference.
“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.”
The African pools play home and away against teams in their pool. They play either home or away against the teams in the other African pool and their programme is completed by matches against all the teams from either the Australian or New Zealand Conference.
Africa Conference 1 – which will play against the Australian Conference in 2016 – is made up of the Vodacom Bulls, Toyota Cheetahs, DHL Stormers and the Japanese team.
Africa Conference 2 features the Kings, Emirates Lions, Cell C Sharks and the Argentinian team and will play against the New Zealand Conference.
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 Toyota Cheetahs will add another first to the list by appearing at the Singapore National Stadium in round three followed by the Vodacom Bulls (Round 5) and DHL Stormers (Round 12).
Morris said: “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.
“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
– Four conferences in two groups:
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.