The Brumbies, last year's Australian Conference victor, open the season against the Sunwolves in Tokyo who are now positioned in the Australian Conference.
The Lions will play six of their first eight matches in Super Rugby 2018 at Ellis Park, with trips to Pretoria and Buenos Airies also contributing to what is a favourable draw for the 2017 and 2016 runner-ups. The elimination finals series will comprise eight teams, facing off in seven matches from 20/21 July until the Final on 4 August.
Tournament organizer SANZAAR released the draw Thursday for a 15-team competition which will see three five-team conferences.
The new format will see the Sunwolves play the four other Australian teams home-and-away, and take on four sides from New Zealand and South Africa, respectively.
The two axed South African sides are now competing in Britain's Pro14, the new incarnation of the Celtic League, fracturing the southern hemisphere rugby scene still further.
Each team will play 16 Conference matches that include eight matches within their own Conference (home and away) and four matches against teams from each of the other Conferences (home or away).
On February 17 the Stormers get the ball rolling at home against the Jaguares‚ with the Lions kicking off two hours later in a challenging home fixture against the Sharks.
"It is a key high performance pathway for players from the SANZAAR Unions to transition from club to Test rugby, and this will continue to be the case in the future". The Lions, runners-up the last two years, host the Sharks in Johannesburg, while Bulls have a bye.
"Super Rugby is one of, if not the best club rugby tournaments in the world highlighted this year by a global TV audience of almost 50 million and a final crowd in Johannesburg of 60,000", Marinos said via a media release.
"We have a great tournament but what is needed now is the talking to be done on the field as enough opinion and perspective has been provided off the field".
The Japanese Sunwolves will now play in the Australian Conference. Their performances over the first two seasons have been disappointing and improvement is required. The billionaire backer of the Force has pledged to launch a new Asia-Pacific competition in competition with Super Rugby.
One of those teams, Japan's Sunwolves, have also had their governance moved away from the Japan Rugby Football Union to an independent body that will work more closely with tournament organisers SANZAAR, chief executive Andy Marinos said. The tournament was not working with 18 teams, the structure was confusing, the outcomes of matches were becoming too predictable and the fans and stakeholders had, through our surveys, voiced their concerns. SANZAAR will be taking a more proactive role within its operating structures.