Melbourne will play host to the inaugural "Super Round" in February after the draw for the new Super Rugby Pacific competition was confirmed on Monday afternoon.
Super Rugby will embark on a new era next year when the 12-team competition gets underway, with fledgling franchises Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua joining the 10 existing teams that contested Super Rugby Trans-Tasman earlier this year.
Rugby Australia [RA] and New Zealand Rugby [NZR] had hoped to hold a "Super Round" in week three of the Trans-Tasman series - eventually won by the Blues - only for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to not only thwart that move but also result in several fixtures changes across the closing weeks of the tournament.
But it appears both governing bodies are quietly confident they will be able to proceed with the cross-border competition in 2022, with Moana to open the season against the Brumbies in Auckland on Feb. 18. The Drua, meanwhile, will make their debut against the Blues, also in Auckland, the following day.
"It's fantastic to be able to confirm our draw for the 2022 competition, and I'd like to thank our teams, broadcasters, New Zealand Rugby and SANZAAR for their co-operation and collaboration in getting to this point," " RA chief executive Andy Marinos said.
"Super Rugby Pacific is fresh and exciting as we look to provide fans a new game-day experience every time they go to a match, all at family friendly kick-off times.
"It will be a Rugby extravaganza at our first-ever Super Round in Round Two in Melbourne, with all six games at AAMI Park over one weekend."
Each team will play 14 regular season games at an even split of seven at home and seven away, though five teams will play one "home" game as part of the Super Round. That means that there are three teams each franchise will play twice, with the focus on those fixtures heavily weighted towards local derbies or "rivalries".
"The draw reflects the new look and feel of the competition whether it's the historic opening match at Mt Smart Stadium, the Super Round, the traditional rivalries that have built up over more than 20 years, or the first time Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua go head-to-head on ANZAC weekend," Chris Lendrum, NZR's general manager of professional rugby, said.
"We have two new clubs who are building competitive squads right now, and ten other clubs who are excited by a fresh challenge. I think the inaugural season of Super Rugby Pacific will be a true celebration for rugby in the Pacific and will showcase the immense playing and coaching talent in the region. We can't wait to get started next February."
After a difficult two years when they have barely played any rugby at home, Melbourne Rebels have been rewarded with the honour of hosting the inaugural Super Round. All six matches will be played at AAMI Park in Round 2 across the weekend of the 25-27 of February.
Those six games are: Moana Pasifika v Waratahs; Highlanders v Blues; Hurricanes v Chiefs; Crusaders v Reds; Rebels v Brumbies; Fijian Drua v Force.
As well as "Super Round", Super Rugby Pacific will also feature a Women in Rugby Round, Culture Round, ANZAC Round and Heritage Round.
On the reality of a potential COVID-enforced border shutdown, Lendrum said contingency plans had been put in place to allow the competition to continue in the event of such a development.
"The draw's obviously been done on the basis that we can play all the way through but we know there's a possibility that that may not happen," he said. 'We've got some contingency thinking in our back pocket already, but as everyone knows COVID is a fluid beast, hard to predict and I think we've learned by now that we just need to react and respond as circumstances arise.
"We're certainly really hopeful that we'll be open and able to do Super Round Melbourne at the end of February and are confident that that will be the case."
Lendrum also confirmed that while the Drua were still likely to be playing the majority of their home games in Australia, there was the chance that they could yet get back to Fiji to play what would be an historic first ever Super Rugby match on home soil.
SUPER RUGBY PACIFIC AT A GLANCE
• 12 teams: Moana Pasifika, Fijian Drua, Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders, Highlanders, Waratahs, Reds, Force, Brumbies, Rebels
• 14 regular season matches = 11 round-robin matches + 3 rivalry matches • One bye round per team (all byes in Rounds 7,8 & 9)
• 8 team playoffs format (QFs: 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6, 4 v 5)