The 21st staging of Super Rugby begins tonight with a showdown between the Blues and defending champion Highlanders at Eden Park.

And it comes with a challenging new competition structure.

The 2016 version has expanded into 18 teams with the introduction of the Sunwolves from Japan and Jaguares from Argentina plus the return of the Southern Kings from South Africa.

To accommodate the extra teams, a new format has been designed with an Australasian group (10 teams) and South African group (eight teams) split into four separate


The Sunwolves and Jaguares will play in the South African group, which is split into Conference 1 (Bulls, Cheetahs, Stormers and Sunwolves) and Conference 2 (Jaguares, Southern Kings, Lions and Sharks).

The two New Zealand and Australian conferences have five teams each as per last year.

A helpful tip to understand how it all works is the six, five, four rule.

In pool play each team will play six matches in their own conference, five from the Australasian Group and four from the African Group to total 15 games.

This year the New Zealand teams will play against African Conference 2 teams and the Australian teams the Conference 1. The draw will reverse in 2017.

Perhaps the most important change comes with how the quarter-finalists will be found.

The winners of each of the four conferences automatically qualify for the knockout phase of the competition and will host quarter-finals plus four wildcards - the next best three teams from Australasia and one from Africa.

The four conference winners are seeded 1-4 ranked on overall competition points, with the wildcards seeded 5-8 ranked on competition points.

So let's put some real teams into the mix and see how this could play out.

The winners of the four conferences are the Chiefs (1), Brumbies (2), Stormers (3) and Sharks (4) who go through to the playoffs ranked 1-4 on competition points.

The next best three Australasian sides are the wildcards ranked 5-7 in the Highlanders (5), Hurricanes (6) and Crusaders (7), with the Jaguares (8) the African group wild card.

So the quarter-final draw would be Chiefs (1) v Jaguares (8), Brumbies (2) v Crusaders (7), Stormers (3) v Hurricanes (6), Sharks (4) v Highlanders (5).

If matches are won by the home teams, the semifinal draw is Chiefs (1) v Sharks (4), Brumbies (2) v Stormers (3).

The highest seeded team would host the final so if the Chiefs and Brumbies both win their semifinals, the Chiefs (1) would host the final.

The round-robin games will take place every weekend from February 26 to July 16 with a break for international matches during June, followed by the finals series at the end of July and the grand final on August 6.

- The Chiefs open their 2016 campaign against the Crusaders in Christchurch tomorrow night from 7.35pm.