The Sunwolves will have fewer long trips this season. Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/EPA

WELLINGTON – The Super Rugby season kicks off this weekend, with a slimmed-down format to revitalise a competition that had been criticised as over-bloated and predictable.
AFP Sport explains the changes designed to improve standards, competitiveness and interest.

Teams trimmed

For the past two years, 18 teams competed from Buenos Aires to Wellington in four conferences, two in South Africa - which oddly also contained Japan's Sunwolves - and two in Australia/New Zealand. It was often exhausting, not just for the players, who had to battle long journeys and jet lag, but also for fans trying to keep up with matches kicking off across up to 16 time zones each weekend. 

This year the competition reverts to 15 clubs, in three conferences centred on Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Simpler format

With the ditching of the complicated four conference structure, scheduling anomalies that meant last year's beaten finalists the Golden Lions did not play any teams from New Zealand in the regular season cannot happen any more because each team will face 12 of the other 14 sides. 

In total there are 18 rounds of matches, with each team playing 16 matches - eight games home and away against each of their conference rivals plus one match against four of the teams in each of the other two conferences.

Competitive action

Last year Australian teams lost all 26 matches they played against New Zealand teams, while Japan's Sunwolves were on the wrong end of an 83-17 scoreline against the Wellington Hurricanes and a 94-7 drubbing by the Golden Lions. 

Fewer teams, more inter-conference rivalry and a more balanced fixture list should mean, it is hoped, fewer lopsided encounters.

Sunwolves come home

In 2017, Japan's Sunwolves had four matches in South Africa and had to travel 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometres) to Buenos Aires to play against the Jaguares. The odd scheduling meant they did not play a side from Australia once but played five matches against the strongest New Zealand sides. 

This year the Tokyo-based franchise, who will play at least one home game in Singapore, will move to the Australian conference, meaning fewer long trips and a kinder spread of fixtures.

The three outcasts

The restructure has not been welcomed by all - especially the three teams cut from the tournament. South Africa's Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs and Port Elizabeth's Southern Kings play on, albeit in the newly expanded Pro16 in Europe. 

Perth's Western Force will play in Australia's National Rugby Championship when it starts in September before joining the Indo-Pacific League, the brainchild of their billionaire owner Andrew Forrest, scheduled to begin in March 2019.