Super Rugby retains contentious format for 2017
The schedule for the 2017 Super Rugby season has been announced, with the competition retaining the format that came in for criticism this year.
In 2016, Super Rugby featured 18 teams for the first time - following the introduction of a sixth South African franchise, the returning Southern Kings, the Argentina-based Jaguares and the Sunwolves of Japan.
However, the Kings and Sunwolves each struggled badly - winning only three out of 30 matches between them.
Some observers bemoaned the number of one-sided matches, gruelling travel schedules and a system that saw Australian Conference winners Brumbies earn a home quarter-final despite collecting fewer regular-season points than the three franchises from New Zealand, who qualified as wildcards.
Nevertheless, the same format will remain in 2017, with each team again playing six matches within its own conference and nine against other teams.
Andy Marinos - CEO of governing body SANZAAR - is confident the new franchises will improve.
"It is anticipated that all three teams will be better for the experience of 2016 as we look forward to seeing their continued improvement," said Marinos.
"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."
Thursday evening fixtures will be introduced for 2017 - starting with the season-opening match between Melbourne Rebels and the Blues on February 23.
Defending champions Hurricanes begin their campaign with a visit to the Sunwolves, who will again play matches in both Tokyo and Singapore.
The competition final will take place on August 5, while a statement from SANZAAR confirmed: "Fixtures in early June and July have been scheduled around the various June Tests and the matches between the British and Irish Lions and the five New Zealand Super Rugby teams."