After much anticipation, the regular-season schedule for the inaugural United Rugby Championship was unveiled on Friday.
The new-look competition will see four South African giants join in alongside teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.
And the South African teams will be on the road to begin with as the Lions—based out of Johannesburg—meet Parma outfit Zebre in the season-opener on Friday, September 24.
Benetton—winners of the inaugural Rainbow Cup in June—will then host the Stormers before the Bulls and the Sharks visit Irish titans Leinster and Munster, respectively.
The opening weekend concludes with a Welsh derby between Dragons and Ospreys at Rodney Parade, a fixture the latter won 42-26 when they travelled to Newport for the Rainbow Cup in May.
Cardiff face a tricky opening fixture at home to Connacht, while Glasgow Warriors make their way to Ravenhill to take on Ulster in Week 1.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh begin life without departed coach Richard Cockerill when they host Scarlets on September 25, with successor Mike Blair seeking a slick start in the job.
The 16 outfits will compete in one single table across 18 rounds, with the top eight finishers advancing to the play-off quarter-finals.
The higher-seeded teams will be drawn against their lower-seeded counterparts—first faces eighth, second plays seventh, and so on—with a view to reaching the Grand Final on June 18.
URC chief executive Martin Anayi said: “We believe these fixtures will ensure that the URC could deliver on its promise of a new era for our league where the very best from South Africa go head-to-head with our Celtic and Italian teams.
“As we carefully manoeuvre out of the pandemic, the URC will take its place as one of the leading leagues in global rugby and this fixture list should ignite our competition and take it to the next level.
“This schedule is the most complex we have ever produced and the efforts of every one of our stakeholders to help us piece it together in the current climate have been monumental. We now have a format that will heighten competition, showcase our clubs, elevate our athletes and bring great excitement to fans and TV audiences right across our territories and beyond.”
As well as the logistics of how teams in South Africa would travel considering the current Covid-19 climate, TV rights were another obstacle delaying organisers in confirming the schedule.
BBC Wales will broadcast 18 Friday night fixtures, returning as a partner three years after the BBC lost its rights to broadcast the old Pro14 competition.
BBC Northern Ireland will also show six of Ulster’s matches during the maiden URC campaign, while S4C has upped its agreement to show 27 live games involving Welsh teams per season.
Premier Sports remains the go-to destination for United Rugby Championship matches after winning the rights on a four-year agreement, showing all 151 fixtures live.
URC Week 1 Fixtures
Friday, September 24
Zebre vs. Lions, 5.35pm KO
Cardiff vs. Connacht, 7.35pm KO
Ulster vs. Glasgow Warriors, 7.35pm KO
Saturday, September 25
Benetton vs. Stormers, 1pm KO
Edinburgh vs. Scarlets, 5.15pm KO
Leinster vs. Bulls, 5.15pm KO
Munster vs. Sharks, 7.35pm KO
Sunday, September 26
Dragons vs. Ospreys, 2pm KO
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