SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 14: Tom Kingston of the Waratahs takes on the defence during the Super Rugby trial match between the Waratahs and the Crusaders at Allianz Stadium on February 14, 2013 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Johannesburg – With the words, “The wait is behind us,” Sanzar chief executive Greg Peters on Wednesday announced the start of the 18th season of Super Rugby, which kicks off in Australia on Friday.

For the five South African teams, action will only get under way next weekend – with some still wrapping up their pre-season training and others tweaking their game-plans ahead of the big kick-off.

The first game of the 2013 edition will take place in Melbourne when two of the newer Super Rugby teams, the Rebels and Force, get proceedings under way. The opening round will feature only Australian Conference teams, to accommodate the busy schedule in Australia due to the British and Irish Lions tour later this season – with the second round involving all three conferences as usual.

Peters said that the Lions’ tour to Australia led to a redesigned draw. “For the first time Sanzar has introduced split rounds, with round one and round 17 only featuring Australian Conference teams, while round 18 and round 19 will see only New Zealand and South African Conference teams in action,” Peters said.

As with the previous season, each team will have two scheduled byes during the regular season and will receive four points for each of these byes (total of eight points). No additional points will be awarded to teams that are not participating in split rounds.

Peters said that the anticipation for the new season has been steadily building, and he was looking forward to the first games. “The wait is behind us as we look forward to the eighteenth season of Super Rugby,” he said. “Each conference has its own particular edge.”

Indeed, in New Zealand the defending champions, the Chiefs, will look to become only the fourth franchise to win back-to-back, with the last three Super Rugby champions coming from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The Blues, who had a disastrous 2012 and are now under former All Blacks wing John Kirwan, are believed to be dark horses for the title, while the Crusaders will be eager to capture another one. The Highlanders, too, after a promising 2012 season, will look for more consistency under Jamie Joseph, while the Hurricanes need to find consistency.

South Africa’s main challengers will again be the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers – teams who have all benefited from the Lions being relegated from the competition. They have all picked up players who have added to their depth and they will be among the contenders for the title. The Cheetahs, who won’t be able to call on the retired Juan Smith again, will be desperate to win more than the five games of last season, while newcomers Southern Kings have a tough season ahead of them.

But the focus this weekend will be on Australia where the Rebels host the Force on Friday and on Saturday the Brumbies entertain the Reds in Canberra. There has been plenty of movement Down Under, but the conference winner will again be one of the Waratahs, Brumbies or Reds. All eyes will again be on Jake White’s Brumbies this season and especially former Wallaby wing Clyde Rathbone, the former SA U-21 captain who returns to the game after four years in the rugby wilderness. – The Star


Round 1

Tomorrow: Rebels v Force 10.40am

Saturday: Brumbies v Reds 10.40am

Round 2

February 22: Highlanders v Chiefs 8.35am; Rebels v Brumbies 10.40am; Bulls v Stormers 7.10pm

February 23: Hurricanes v Blues 8.35am; Reds v Waratahs 10.40am; Cheetahs v Sharks 5.05pm; Southern Kings v Force 7.10pm

Round 3

March 1: Blues v Crusaders 8.30am; Waratahs v Rebels 10.20am; Reds v Hurricanes 12.20pm

March 2: Chiefs v Cheetahs 8.35am; Bulls v Force 5.05pm; Sharks v Stormers 7.10pm

Round 4

March 8: Hurricanes v Crusaders 8.35am; Rebels v Reds 10.40am

March 9: Highlanders v Cheetahs 8.35am; Brumbies v Waratahs 10.40am; Stormers v Chiefs 5.05pm; Southern Kings v Sharks 7.10pm

March 10: Blues v Bulls 5.05am

Round 5

March 15: Highlanders v Hurricanes 8.35am; Waratahs v Cheetahs 10.40am; Southern Kings v Chiefs 7.10pm

March 16: Crusaders v Bulls 8.35am; Reds v Force 10.40am; Sharks v Brumbies 5.05pm

Round 6

March 22: Chiefs v Highlanders 8.35am

March 23: Crusaders v Southern Kings 8.35am; Reds v Bulls 10.40am; Force v Cheetahs 12.45pm; Sharks v Rebels 5.05pm; Stormers v Brumbies 7.10pm

March 24: Waratahs v Blues 7.05am

Round 7

March 29: Highlanders v Reds 8.35am

March 30: Hurricanes v Southern Kings 5.35am; Chiefs v Blues 8.35am; Brumbies v Bulls 10.40am; Cheetahs v Rebels 5.05pm; Stormers v Crusaders 7.10pm

March 31: Waratahs v Force 7.05am

Round 8

April 5: Blues v Highlanders 8.35am; Brumbies v Southern Kings 10.40am; Sharks v Crusaders 7.10pm

April 6: Hurricanes v Waratahs 8.35am; Force v Rebels 10.40am; Cheetahs v Stormers 5.05pm

Round 9

April 12: Highlanders v Brumbies 9.35am

April 13: Chiefs v Reds 4.35am; Blues v Hurricanes 9.35am; Rebels v Southern Kings 11.40am; Force v Crusaders 1.45pm; Stormers v Sharks 5.05pm; Bulls v Cheetahs 7.10pm

Round 10

April 19: Hurricanes v Force 9.35am; Waratahs v Chiefs 11.40am

April 20: Crusaders v Highlanders 9.35am; Reds v Brumbies 11.40am; Sharks v Cheetahs 5.05pm; Southern Kings v Bulls 7.10pm

Round 11

April 26: Hurricanes v Stormers 9.35am; Reds v Blues 11.40am

April 27: Chiefs v Sharks 9.35am; Brumbies v Force 11.40am; Bulls v Waratahs 5.05pm; Cheetahs v Southern Kings 7.10pm

April 28: Crusaders v Rebels 5.05am

Round 12

May 3: Blues v Stormers 9.35am; Rebels v Chiefs 11.40am

May 4: Highlanders v Sharks 9.35am; Force v Reds 11.40am; Southern Kings v Waratahs 5.05pm; Bulls v Hurricanes 7.10pm

May 5: Brumbies v Crusaders 7.05am

Round 13

May 10: Chiefs v Force 9.35am; Reds v Sharks 11.40am; Cheetahs v Hurricanes 7.10pm

May 11: Blues v Rebels 9.35am; Waratahs v Stormers 11.40am; Southern Kings v Highlanders 5.05pm

Round 14

May 17: Hurricanes v Chiefs 9.35am; Rebels v Stormers 11.40am; Force v Sharks 1.45pm

May 18: Crusaders v Blues 9.35am; Waratahs v Brumbies 11.40am; Bulls v Highlanders 5.05pm; Cheetahs v Reds 7.10pm

Round 15

May 24: Chiefs v Crusaders 9.35am; Rebels v Waratahs 11.40am

May 25: Blues v Brumbies 9.35am; Force v Highlanders 11.40am; Southern Kings v Cheetahs 3pm; Stormers v Reds 5.05pm; Sharks v Bulls 7.10pm

Round 16

May 31: Crusaders v Waratahs 9.35am; Brumbies v Hurricanes 11.40am

June 1: Highlanders v Blues 9.35am; Reds v Rebels 11.40am; Stormers v Southern Kings 5.05pm; Cheetahs v Bulls 7.10pm

Round 17

June 7: Brumbies v Rebels 11.40am

June 9: Force v Waratahs 8.05am

Round 18

June 28: Chiefs v Hurricanes 9.35am

June 29: Highlanders v Crusaders 9.35am; Sharks v Blues 3pm; Bulls v Southern Kings 5.05pm; Stormers v Cheetahs 7.10pm

Round 19

July 5: Crusaders v Chiefs 9.35am

July 6: Hurricanes v Highlanders 9.35am; Cheetahs v Blues 3pm; Southern Kings v Stormers 5.05pm; Bulls v Sharks 7.10pm

Round 20

July 12: Crusaders v Hurricanes 9.35am; Rebels v Highlanders 11.40am

July 13: Blues v Chiefs 9.35am; Waratahs v Reds 11.40am; Force v Brumbies 1.45pm; Sharks v Southern Kings 5.05pm; Stormers v Bulls 7.10pm

Round 21

July 19: 4th Seed v 5th Seed

July 20: 3rd Seed v 6th Seed

Round 22

July 26: 1st v 4th

July 27: 2nd v 3rd

Round 23

August 3: Winner SF1 v Winner SF2 – The Star