The Melbourne Rebels will be the first Australian team to play against a new side from Japan in next year’s expanded Super Rugby competition.
Yet-to-be-named teams from Japan and Argentina as well as a sixth side from South Africa, the Kings, have joined the 18-team competition.
It will now be divided into four conferences – with one in Australia, one in New Zealand and two in South Africa.
Australian teams will play six matches in their conference, five in New Zealand’s and four in one of the two South African conferences, of which the Japanese outfit is in one and Argentina is in the other.
Because Australian teams have been drawn to play in the South African conference that includes the Japanese side, they will not play the Argentinian team next season.
There will also be an expanded eight-team finals series made up of seven matches.
Just a month ago there was concern about Japan’s ability to field a team due to to a stand-off between the national organisation and clubs over player payments, however SANZAR confirmed their entry.
The Rebels travel to Tokyo in round four in March, although the Japanese franchise is still to reveal how many of their national team, who recently upset South Africa in the World Cup, will take part.
They and Argentina will reveal details of their franchises after the World Cup, although Japan confirmed they will split their games between Tokyo and Singapore.
A new stadium is being built in Buenos Aires to host matches.
Australia’s best performing teams, the NSW Waratahs and Brumbies, face tough opening matches.
The Brumbies take on last year’s losing finalists the Hurricanes in Canberra on Friday, February 26, while the Waratahs host old foes Queensland Reds a day later with the Western Force and Rebels also meeting that day.
Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver said the arrival of Japan and Argentina to Super Rugby would expose the game and competition to a new supporter base.
“We know there is an enormous appetite for the game in Japan with an estimated 20 million Japanese fans tuning in to the Rugby World Cup so far, spurred on by the national team’s stunning upset of South Africa,” Pulver said in a statement.
Pulver believed Australian teams would again challenge for the title.
“When you look across the board at the Australian teams, every one of our teams at full strength can make a strong push for the finals.
“I really believe we are going to see the closest race for the Australian conference title that we’ve ever witnessed.”