After suggesting last week’s qualifying final was one of the best Australian derby games in years, it’s only fair to note that Saturday night’s final topped it in exactly the way you would hope.
Recent Australian Super Rugby heavyweights the Brumbies and Waratahs will meet just once in next year’s regular season, while Melbourne have been handed the first game and the toughest early draw.
The Rebels host the opening game of the season at AAMI Park on Thursday February 23 against the Blues, but meet New Zealand’s three 2016 semi-finalists in the first six rounds and have their two byes by round seven.
In other opening-round games, 2016 Australian conference winners the Brumbies start away to the Crusaders, the Waratahs host the Western Force and the Reds start at home to the Sharks.
After starting in the Christchurch cauldron, the Brumbies have home matches against the Sharks and Force, before meeting the Waratahs in Sydney.
That will be the only clash between the two main Australian teams of recent years and the Waratahs will also play just one derby against old rivals Queensland.
The Tahs play early season matches in South Africa against the 2016 runners-up the Lions and the Sharks before heading home to host the Brumbies.
Queensland, who will be bolstered by the signings of Australian captain and hooker Stephen Moore, playmaker Quade Cooper and veteran flanker George Smith, have theoretically been given a reasonable start to the season.
After hosting the Sharks and playing the Force in Perth, they entertain the Crusaders and head overseas to play the Lions and Jaguares.
They then come back to host the defending champions the Hurricanes and travel to meet the Brumbies.
The Force, under new coach Dave Wessels, don’t play an overseas team until round five and start with three derbies, with a Thursday home game against the Reds sandwiched between away clashes against the Waratahs and Brumbies.
They get their first bye in round four but the Brumbies, Waratahs and Reds, must wait till rounds six, round eight and nine respectively before their first break.
Amongst the season highlights are an Easter Saturday home game for the Rebels against the Brumbies and seven Australian games being played in afternoon time slots.
The five Australian franchises won’t play the Sunwolves this year, but each will face the Jaguares, with the Force, Reds and Brumbies travelling to Argentina.
The draw includes three matches in Singapore where the Sunwolves will host South African teams.
The Australian teams all play their last two games after a five-week break for the June Tests, with the finals series starting on July 21 and the final set for August 5.