Super Rugby 2020: So what's the deal again?

Welcome to the 2020 Super Rugby season.

January? Isn't that a bit early? We're in the middle of summer, right? Yes, they are all perfectly valid observations.

The season officially kicks off next Friday when the Blues host the Chiefs at Eden Park in Auckland. Immediately following that match, the attention shifts to Canberra where the Brumbies and Reds meet.

From a purely Australian perspective, it is hard to entertain the fact Super Rugby will be underway before the Australian Open finals have been played. But that is exactly the situation we find ourselves in.

The 2020 season is also Super Rugby's last as a conference-based competition.

All a bit confusing? No problems, we've answered some of the big questions below.

Why is the season starting in January?

This year's competition has only arrived two weeks earlier than the 2019 version, it's just the Jan. 31 kick-off that is proving a little hard to swallow. It's also worth pointing out that last year's competition was pushed forward because of the Rugby World Cup; fans are far more accustomed to Super Rugby beginning in the final week of February.

So why the change this year?

Well, 2020 represents the beginning of World Rugby's new global calendar. The key feature of the new structure is that the June Test series has now been pushed back to July, allowing Super Rugby to run continuously without a break two thirds of the way through the season.

It also will afford each of the SANZAAR nations at least one week's preparation before their respective in-bound tours in July.

While some supporters may find it hard to engage with Super Rugby so early in the year, fans can at least take solace in the fact a more traditional season kick-off date will return in 2021.

That will be made possible by Super Rugby's return to a 14-team round-robin competition that will be without the Sunwolves, whose axing was confirmed midway through the 2019 tournament.

Oh right, yeah, the Sunwolves, what's the deal again?

It may seem like an almost inconceivable prospect given what we saw in Japan just a few months ago, but this will indeed be the Sunwolves' fifth and final season of Super Rugby.

Expansion proved a poisoned chalice for SANZAAR - particularly the move to 18 teams across the 2016/17 seasons -- and the Sunwolves are the final piece of a soon-to-be-defunct unworkable jigsaw puzzle.

After propping up the Sunwolves in recent years, SANZAAR wanted the Japan Rugby Football Union to bankroll the franchise for a rumoured $10m per year. The JRFU refused and thus time was called on the Sunwolves' Super Rugby tenure, but not before they were forced to fulfil the final year of the current 15-team broadcast deal.

These discussions and decisions came well before the raging success that was the 2019 Rugby World Cup when Japan reached the quarterfinals and captured the imagination of an inspired nation.

But there has always been disconnect between the JRFU, the powerful Top League clubs - whose season has also shifted in 2020 to run concurrently with Super Rugby - and Sunwolves officials. And then there's the proposed overhaul of the Top League at the end of 2021.

Just what becomes of Japanese rugby off the back off the World Cup remains to be seen but 2020 will certainly be the year we say sayonara to the Sunwolves.

So the conference structure stays for 2020?

Yep, the Sunwolves will continue to play in the Australian conference alongside the Brumbies, Rebels, Reds and Waratahs.

The New Zealand and South African conferences also stay the same. Each team plays 16 regular-season games with eight home-and-away matches against their conference rivals, and four of the five in the other two conferences.

I've heard rumblings of law changes; are they correct?

Yes, and no. World Rugby is constantly addressing its laws, particularly in regards as to how they can make the game safer. That was certainly put into the spotlight in Japan, with the Wallabies and now-former coach Michael Cheika hitting the headlines as regularly as anyone.

As for Super Rugby, however, only the new high tackle technique warning will be in force. Media reports recently suggested the 50-20 kick and goal-line drop-out laws could also be in play, but SANZAAR issued a press release at the start of this week to clarify any misunderstandings.

"SANZAAR will be appointing a tackle technique review officer to oversee the trial," the media statement read. "SANZAAR is focusing on implementing a process that identifies high-risk upright tackles.

"The shadow trial will see SANZAAR looking at all tackles each round and identifying tackles in which the tackler is in an upright body position, and in the event it is deemed the tackler has shown poor technique in executing an upright tackle, a warning may be sent to the player and player's coach.

"This process will be an educational process that will aim to educate players and coaches of high-risk behaviours by identifying poor tackle techniques and seeking to inform players of better choices they can make in the tackle zone.

"This process will not impose any sanctions on Players. This is not designed to penalise the player in any way but to hopefully shine a light on poor technique that has been shown to increase the risk of significant injury and attempt to affect behavioural change via education and identification."

What are the competition's longer-term prospects, then?

That's anyone's guess. Rumours of a trans-Tasman competition, leaving South Africa to head north, seem to be gathering more momentum than ever. All Blacks great Andrew Mehrtens told ESPN late last year it was in both of Australia and New Zealand's best interests to go it alone, and to carve out a future that heads north to Asia.

This perhaps has greatest relevance for Australia where current broadcasters Fox Sports are reportedly playing hardball with negotiations. Fox had already made cuts to its rugby broadcast staff midway through 2019 but the reality of the broadcaster cutting back on "non-marquee sport" really hit home when news of veteran host Nick McArdle's departure broke on Thursday - the day of the Australian Super Rugby launch.

Telco Optus has, meanwhile, emerged as a potential new home for rugby in Australia but those reports have raised concerns over rugby's already diminishing visibility Down Under.

Across the ditch, however, NZ Rugby secured a rumoured $[NZ] 400m deal with Sky that also saw the governing take a five percent stake in the company.

As for what could become of the competition's structure, there are unlikely to be any further changes to Super Rugby before 2026 after it reverts to 14 teams next year. That gives the competition six seasons to rediscover some of the life that once made it the world's best provincial competition and potentially set itself up for the second half of the decade.

On the other hand, it could slip further into obscurity and leave the four SANZAAR nations with more questions than answers in this modern rugby world.