WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The 2018 Super Rugby season will open on Feb. 17 with a match between the Cape Town-based Stormers and Argentina's Jaguares, and with Japan's Sunwolves moving to the Australian conference.
Tournament organizers SANZAAR released the draw Thursday for a 15-team competition which will see three five-team conferences.
The Sunwolves are now drawn with the four Australian teams and the Jaguares with the four remaining South African sides.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders will begin their title defense at home to the Hamilton-based Chiefs.
The draw has been announced as fallout continues from the reduction of the tournament from 18 to 15 teams.
Australia has decided to axe the Perth-based Western Force but fallout from that decision continues to reverberate in Australian rugby. The billionaire backer of the Force plans to launch a new Asia-Pacific competition.
South Africa has cut the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs and Port Elizabeth-based Kings, who will now play in a European competition.
SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos defended the changes, saying they were made necesssary by failing public interest.
"It was not an easy decision to reduce the number of teams, but a necessary one considering the outputs from the strategic review to date," Marinos said Thursday. "The tournament was not working with 18 teams, the structure was confusing, the outcomes of matches were becoming too predictable and the fans and stakeholders had, through our surveys, voiced their concerns.
"SANZAAR respects that as a consequence of this Australia and South Africa have had to make some very hard decisions since our announcement in April that 18 would revert to 15 teams. To not have done anything would have been irresponsible and would have had a significant impact on the long-term sustainability of the game within our markets."
The changes in the tournament's size and structure were made to answer fans' concerns that the competition was both complex and unfair. The Lions reached the playoffs this season without playing a New Zealand team during the regular season.
The ACT Brumbies also reached the playoffs by topping the Australian conference, although their regular-season record left them only the ninth-best team in the competition.
Fans haven't warmed in recent seasons to a competition in which inter-conference matches have been a relative rarity. New Zealand's five teams have dominated the tournament for several seasons — taking four of the eight playoffs places in the last two years — but have not been rewarded for their form with home playoffs.
Teams such as the Brumbies and Stormers hosted playoffs this season, though their records were considerably worse than teams forced to travel to playoff games.
The reduction of the competition to 15 teams partly addresses some of those concerns. The draw will see far more inter-conference action next season, though the playoffs are still stacked in favor of conference winners.