Cape Town – Super Rugby makes its long-awaited return to the Eastern Cape on February 23 next year when the Southern Kings host Australiaâ€™s Western Force (kick off 19:10) in the final match of the first full round.
The Southern Kings kick off their debut season in the tournament at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth at the end of a round otherwise studded with conference derbies.
The Sharks played one match in Port Elizabeth in 1998 and a second in 1999 as well as one match in East London in the latter year.
This year’s finalists travel to Bloemfontein to meet the Cheetahs (kick off 17:05) while the season opens in South Africa with the North-South derby at Loftus Versfeld with the Bulls hosting 2012 conference winners, the Stormers.
The fixtures were announced by SANZAR on Friday in a new-look draw which features a staggered start, and staggered resumption after the June internationals, to accommodate the British Irish Lionsâ€™ tour of Australia.
The Australian teams kick off one week earlier, and close one week later, as well as resuming two weeks later in July after the international window, in order to manage the extended Lionsâ€™ schedule.
South Africaâ€™s conference is unaffected with the Kings going into the bye week SAâ€™s first round and then hosting the Sharks in the third round of South African action.
They then host the champion Chiefs in round five before heading overseas for the first time for matches against the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Brumbies and Rebels.
The Sharks have their first home match in South Africaâ€™s second round when they face the Stormers, who play their first home match in Cape Town on March 9.
The tournament actually kicks off on February 15 but only Australian Conference teams will be in action. The same will occur in round 17 (just before the Super Rugby season â€˜breaksâ€™ for the June inbounds), while rounds 18 and 19 (after the break) will feature only New Zealand and South African Conference teams.
â€œThe Lions tour to Australia presented some unique challenges in preparing the 2013 Super Rugby draw,â€? SANZAR CEO Greg Peters said.
â€œWe are very appreciative of the cooperation we received from the National Unions and broadcasters in preparing this draw and working through the issues.â€?
Peters said there was much excitement building despite being months out.
â€œOver the last two seasons we have seen two franchises – the Reds and the Chiefs – win the Super Rugby trophy for the first time,â€? Peters said.
â€œThe emphasis in early rounds is again on local derbies that have again proven to be the most watched and attended matches in 2012.â€?
There is Sunday play in 2013 with the Blues hosting the Bulls in round four, while the Waratahs will host consecutive Sunday fixtures in rounds six and seven – with the Crusaders, Brumbies and Force other teams to play on the last day of the weekend throughout the season.
Peters said the draw would build on the successes of 2012.
â€œThe 2012 Super Rugby season was the most watched season of Super Rugby ever, both in terms of those attending matches live and also viewing on television. The 2013 draw will hopefully see us grow those numbers again,â€? he said.
The Super Rugby finals series starts on Friday, July 19, with the Super Rugby qualifiers scheduled for that weekend – while the Super Rugby semi-finals will take place on July 26/27, with the Super Rugby final to be played on Saturday, August 3.