New Zealand’s Super rugby conference is primed for a high-octane start next year with a clash between the Chiefs and Crusaders, two teams forging a fierce rivalry, scheduled for opening weekend in Christchurch.
The defending champion Chiefs have had the upper hand over the Crusaders, the seven-time title holders, over the past couple of years.
Once the benchmark in New Zealand rugby, that mantle has shifted from Christchurch to Hamilton following the appointment of Dave Rennie and fellow coaches Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry.
The Chiefs have won their past two semifinals against the Crusaders in Hamilton.
However, the Crusaders will take heart ahead of the February 21 clash from their last result over their rivals at AMI Stadium, a 43-15 thrashing in the penultimate round which suggested they were on track to win their first title since 2008.
John Kirwan begins his second season at the Blues with a match against the Highlanders in Dunedin, another fixture played against a backdrop of an extraordinary match in the preceding season.
Rank outsiders following a horrific run over the first 15 weeks of the competition, Jamie Joseph’s men powered to a 29-7 halftime lead after a surprisingly one-sided first half, only to have to dig deep to win 38-28 following a big comeback from the visitors.
The Chiefs have a bye in the third week and make their big trip in week five with a match against the Force in Perth followed by a tough South African double of the Bulls in Pretoria and Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
The Blues, who host the Crusaders in Auckland in week two, travel to South Africa straight afterwards, playing the Bulls in Pretoria and Lions in Johannesburg.
A feature of the Chiefs’ draw is the uncertainty over the venues for their home matches against the Blues and Waratahs. That is likely to be due to the Taranaki Rugby Union’s switch in loyalties from the Hurricanes to the Chiefs.
The Taranaki union is likely to want to host at least one of those matches at New Plymouth’s Yarrow Stadium.
The Hurricanes begin with a tough match against the Sharks in Durban before an equally challenging encounter against the Stormers in Cape Town and a home match against last year’s beaten finalists the Brumbies.
Like this year when the Australian sides began early due to the British and Irish Lions tour, the competition again suffers a staggered start, with the South African sides beginning a week early as their inbound tour in June doesn’t align with New Zealand’s and Australia’s.
The Boks host Wales in two tests and Scotland in one, although the South African Rugby Union is yet to confirm those arrangements.
For New Zealand the competition will halt due to the arrival of England for three tests. The Wallabies host France.
The first match of the competition is between the Cheetahs and Lions, who have replaced the Southern Kings, in Bloemfontein on February 15.
The final is scheduled for August 2.
ROUND 1 (South African Teams ONLY)
Saturday 15 February Cheetahs v Lions Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein #CHEvLIO
Saturday 15 February Sharks v Bulls Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban #SHAvBUL
Schedules for NZ teams
Round 2: Highlanders, Dunedin, Sat Feb 22
Round 3: Crusaders, Auckland, Fri Feb 28
Round 4: Bulls, Pretoria, Sun Mar 9
Round 5: Lions, Johannesburg, Sun Mar 16
Round 6: Cheetahs, Auckland, Sat Mar 22
Round 7: Highlanders, Auckland, Sat Mar 29
Round 8: Brumbies, Canberra, Fri Apr 4
Round 10: Hurricanes, TBC, Fri Apr 18
Round 11: Waratahs, Auckland, Fri Apr 25
Round 12: Reds, Auckland, Fri May 2
Round 13: Chiefs, TBC, Fri May 9
Round 15: Sharks, Albany, Fri May 23
Round 16: Hurricanes, Auckland, Sat May 31
Round 17: Force, Perth, Sat June 28
Round 18: Crusaders, Christchurch, Sat July 5
Round 19: Chiefs, Auckland, Fri July 11
Round 2: Crusaders, Christchurch, Fri Feb 21
Round 3: Highlanders, Hamilton, Sat Mar 1
Round 5: Stormers, Hamilton, Fri Mar 14
Round 6: Force, Perth, Sun Mar 23
Round 7: Bulls, Pretoria, Sun Mar 30
Round 8: Cheetahs, Bloemfontein, Sun Apr 6
Round 9: Rebels, Hamilton, Sat Apr 12
Round 10: Crusaders, Hamilton, Apr 19
Round 11: Brumbies, Canberra, Fri Apr 25
Round 12: Lions, Hamilton, Sat May 3
Round 13: Blues, TBC, Fri May 9
Round 15: Hurricanes, TBC, Sat May 24
Round 16: Waratahs, TBC, Sat May 31
Round 17: Highlanders, Dunedin, Fri June 27
Round 18: Hurricanes, Hamilton, Fri July 4
Round 19: Blues, Auckland, Fri July 11
Round 2: Sharks, Durban, Sun Feb 23
Round 3: Stormers, Cape Town, Sun Mar 1
Round 4: Brumbies, TBC, Fri Mar 7
Round 5: Cheetahs, TBC, Sat Mar 15
Round 6: Highlanders, Dunedin, Fri Mar 21
Round 7: Crusaders, Christchurch, Fri Mar 28
Round 8: Bulls, TBC, Sat Apr 5
Round 10: Blues, TBC, Fri Apr 18
Round 11: Reds, TBC, Fri Apr 26
Round 12: Waratahs, Sydney, Sat May 3
Round 13: Rebels, Melbourne, Fri May 9
Round 14: Highlanders, TBC, Fri May 16
Round 15: Chiefs, TBC, Sat May 24
Round 16: Blues, Auckland, Sat May 31
Round 17: Crusaders, TBC, Sat June 28
Round 18: Chiefs, Hamilton, Fri July 4
Round 2 Chiefs, Christchurch, Fri Feb 21
Round 3: Blues, Auckland, Fri Feb 28
Round 4: Stormers, Christchurch, Sat Mar 8
Round 5: Rebels, Melbourne, Fri Mar 14
Round 7: Hurricanes, Christchurch, Fri Mar 28
Round 8: Lions, Johannesburg, Sun Apr 5
Round 9: Cheetahs, Bloemfontein, Sun Apr 13
Round 10: Chiefs, Hamilton, Sat Apr 19
Round 12: Brumbies, Christchurch, Sat May 3
Round 13: Reds, Brisbane, Sun May 11
Round 14: Sharks, Christchurch, May 18
Round 15: Highlanders, Dunedin, Sat May 24
Round 16 Force, Christchurch, Fri May 30
Round 17: Hurricanes, TBC, Sat June 28
Round 18: Blues, Christchurch, Sat July 5
Round 19: Highlanders, Christchurch, Sat July 12
Round 2: Blues, Dunedin, Sat Feb 22
Round 3: Chiefs, Hamilton, Sat Mar 1
Round 5: Force, Dunedin, Sat Mar 15
Round 6: Hurricanes, Dunedin, Fri Mar 21
Round 7: Blues, Auckland, Sat Mar 29
Round 8: Rebels, Dunedin, Fri Apr 4
Round 9: Bulls, Dunedin, Fri Apr 11
Round 11: Sharks, Durban, Sat Apr 26
Round 12: Stormers, Cape Town, Sun May 4
Round 13: Lions, Dunedin, Sat May 10
Round 14: Hurricanes, TBC, Fri May 16
Round 15: Crusaders, Dunedin, Sat May 24
Round 16: Reds, Brisbane, Fri May 30
Round 17: Chiefs, Dunedin, Fri June 27
Round 18: Waratahs, Sydney, Sun Jul 6
Round 19: Crusaders, Christchurch, Sat July 12