The defending champions in the Currie Cup Premier Division, the Toyota Free State Cheetahs, will kick off the 2017 season on Friday, 21 July, when they host the Cell C Sharks in Bloemfontein.

The opening round of action in the Currie Cup, supported by Nashua and DirectAxis, will also see the Vodacom Blue Bulls, last year’s runners up, travel to Kimberley to take on Tafel Lager Griquas on Saturday, 22 July, while the Steval Pumas will host the Xerox Golden Lions in Nelspruit on Sunday, 23 July. DHL Western Province will have a bye in the first round.

The Currie Cup First Division, which will be contested by the Down Touch Griffons, Hino Valke, Leopards, Boland Cavaliers, Border Bulldogs, Eastern Province, SWD Eagles and Windhoek Draught Welwitschias, starts in the last weekend of August.

The semifinals in the Premier Division are scheduled for the weekend of 21 October and the Final – as well as the finals of the Provincial U19 and U21 competitions – will be on Saturday, 28 October. The First Division semifinals are on 14 October and the final on 20 October.

“The recent changes to the Currie Cup format are hugely exciting and the countdown has now truly begun to what promises to be another thrilling competition of high-class South African provincial rugby,” said SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux.

“Returning to a seven-team Premier Division format, with all teams facing each other home and away, will bring about a more intense, strength-versus-strength competition, and the fact that we’ve re-introduced a promotion challenge series between the winner of the First Division against the last-placed Premier Division team, will add to the excitement.”

Roux explained the decision to start the Currie Cup earlier than originally planned and to do away with the proposed midweek matches: “The opening rounds of the Currie Cup overlap with the Vodacom Super Rugby playoffs, but that is a decision that was taken following a recommendation by the Franchise Committee to Exco as to the scheduling of the competition.

“One of the positive outcome of the constitutional changes made last year was to streamline our governance processes and put unions closer to the decision-making process. The CEOs of the premier Division teams were central to deciding on the format of the Currie Cup.

“As the Premier Division will be played by seven teams over a double round of matches, it was difficult to fit all of the encounters into the existing playing window. The Franchise Committee’s recommendation was to bring the kick off of the competition forward – even though there may be an overlap with Vodacom Super Rugby play-offs for some teams.

“They preferred this model to playing multiple midweek matches, which had also been on the table. The franchise teams that are likely to be affected have factored it into their planning.”