champs ease into super 14

LAST year's Super 14 champions, the Blue Bulls, start the defence of their title against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on February 12 when the tournament kicks off.

LAST year's Super 14 champions, the Blue Bulls, start the defence of their title against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on February 12 when the tournament kicks off.

The champions have the advantage of playing their first five matches - four are at Loftus - before they leave on their Australasian tour.

On their return the Bulls then play the Lions, Sharks and Crusaders at home before a derby against the Stormers in Cape Town concludes their league fixtures.

But while the Bulls will be smiling about the draw that will give them the opportunity to phase into the competition in familiar South African surroundings, the Sharks and the Lions this time have the "tour from hell" in that they both have to cross the Tasman Sea twice.

Both sides fly across Australia to play a match in New Zealand, return to Australia for two matches and then fly back to New Zealand for a further two matches before returning home over Australia.

In addition to this tough fixture list, the Lions get their bye only after their first eight matches and the Sharks after nine matches.

The Lions have two home matches, against the Stormers and Chiefs, followed by their five matches in Australasia against the Hurricanes, Brumbies, Waratahs, Crusaders and the Highlanders. They then get their bye before facing the Reds in Johannesburg.

The Sharks also have two home matches, against the Chiefs and the Cheetahs, to start their competition.

Their first away match is against the Crusaders in New Zealand, followed by the Waratahs and the Brumbies in Australia and then the Highlanders and Hurricanes, both in New Zealand.

The Sharks and the Lions tour Australasia in the same weeks of the competition.

The Cheetahs play their first and also their last three matches at home, while the Stormers have the unenviable challenge of garnering their points as soon as possible. They start off away against the Lions, and then have five home matches before leaving for Australasia. They finish off with a home match against the Crusaders, an away fixture against the Sharks and then play the Bulls at Newlands in their last outing.

Six of the seven matches on the first weekend of the competition will be derbies with teams from the same country playing one another. The exception is the Sharks, who will be playing the Chiefs in Durban.

The opening day of the new season gets under way in Auckland where the Blues host North Island rivals the Hurricanes on the Friday.

The Australian season kicks off in Perth with the Western Force hosting the Brumbies. - Sapa

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