Returning Lions to open 2014 Super Rugby season

The Johannesburg-based Lions will mark their return to Super Rugby with a derby clash against the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs in an all-South African round which opens the 2014 season.

The Lions were dropped from the southern hemisphere tournament in 2012 but won back their place among South Africa's five franchises in a promotion-relegation contest with the Southern Kings at the end of last season.

They will play the first match of the 2014 season at Bloemfontein's Free State Stadium on Feb. 15, according to the draw released Tuesday by the tournament's governing body SANZAR.

The Durban-based Sharks, now under the coaching direction of World Cup-winning coach Jake White, will play the Pretoria-based Bulls in the other match of the opening round while the Cape Town-based Stormers have a bye.

The Hamilton-based Chiefs will begin their bid for a third-straight title in a compelling New Zealand derby clash with the Christchurch-based Crusaders in the first full round of the tournament on the weekend of Feb. 21 to 23.

That round also features a clash between the two top Australian teams of last season, the ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds who meet in Canberra on Feb. 22. The Lions take on the Stormers in the same round and in their first home match of the season at Johannesburg's Ellis Park.

The New South Wales Waratahs meet the Perth-based Western Force in the opening round and in the first of four Sunday matches spread throughout the regular season.

The Chiefs and Brumbies meet for the first time, in a repeat of last year's final, on Friday, April 25 the annual ANZAC Day war memorial holiday in Australia and New Zealand. The Auckland-based Blues play the Waratahs and the Dunedin-based Highlanders play the Sharks as part of a triple-header on that day.

The tournament will break after its 16th round, which ends on May 31, to make way for June test matches in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It resumes on June 27 with a 17th round involving only New Zealand and Australia as the Springboks continue with international commitments.

The finals series will take place over three weeks from Friday, July 18 with quarterfinals, semifinals and a final on Saturday, Aug. 2.

"With the draw now confirmed, teams and fans alike can start preparing for what promises to be another exciting Super Rugby season," SANZAR chief executive Greg Peters said. "Local derbies remain the pre-eminent focus of the early rounds as they have proven to be tremendous drawcards to establish early momentum and start the competition with the tribalism and passion that Super Rugby is renowned for."

The season contains a total of 125 matches between Feb. 15 and Aug. 2 and each team plays 16 games eight at home and eight away.

The 2011 champion Queensland Reds have just one home match in the opening six rounds, a tough assignment for Richard Graham, who took over as coach when Ewen McKenzie departed to take the Wallabies job.

"We've got tough assignments away to two of our traditional Australian rivals to begin the season, which will provide a challenge and opportunity to start strongly," Graham said. "Four out of our first five games will be on the road, which will give this young group the chance to spend a lot of time together and develop a good understanding of the direction on and off the field."

The New South Wales Waratahs don't leave Australia until the seventh round, when they take on the Sharks in Durban.

White will make his return with the Sharks to Canberra he left the Brumbies last month, halfway through a four-year contract on May 10.

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