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· Cell C Sharks kick off SA season in Brisbane

· Two local derbies on opening round

· 135 regular season matches and eight-team, seven match finals series

· Draw schedule accounts for British & Irish Lions tour in June

· Finals series commences 21 July with Final set for 5 August

Note to editors: The 2017 Vodacom Super Rugby schedule is attached. Please note that some venues are still to be confirmed.

Vodacom Super Rugby 2017 will kick off on Thursday 23 February when the Melbourne Rebels host the Blues, while the Cell C Sharks will be the first South African side in action when they take on the Reds in Brisbane a day later.

The Thursday night kick-off (Thursday morning SA time) is a first for Vodacom Super Rugby and is followed a week later by another Thursday match between Force and the Reds in Perth.

The opening round of action will see two South African derbies – both on Saturday, 25 February – when 2016 runners-up, the Emirates Lions, travel to Bloemfontein to face the Toyota Cheetahs, while the DHL Stormers will host the Vodacom Bulls in Cape Town.The Hurricanes will start off their title defence in Tokyo against the Sunwolves, while 2016 Australian conference winners, the Brumbies, will play the Crusaders in Christchurch.

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 mind-set. 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 Emirates Lions, highlighting the integrity of the tournament structure.

The Hurricanes were the fourth new champion in the last five years of Vodacom Super Rugby thereby securing a clean sweep of New Zealand teams having won the title since its inception, and again highlighting the competitiveness of the tournament.

The 2017 June Test window, and in particular the British & 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 & Irish Lions and the five New Zealand Vodacom Super Rugby teams.

“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,” said SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos.

“We saw some fantastic rugby earlier this 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 Southern Kings from South Africa returning after their brief spell in 2013.

“It is anticipated that all three 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,” added Marinos.

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