Furthermore, the Border Bulldogs will take part in the competition, even though the union was put into administration because of financial problems in October.
The decision to include the Bulldogs in the competition was taken after funding was made available by the Eastern Cape Department of Sport and the first of the Rugby Festivals – where communities across the country will be able to enjoy top class provincial action – takes place this weekend in East London.
In a double header of provincial action in the BCM Stadium, DHL Western Province and SWD will open the first of eight Rugby Festivals, with Border and newcomers, the Zimbabwe Academy, rounding off the weekend’s start to the competition.
The community-centred element of the tournament – which kicks off in Nelspruit on Friday and concludes with the final on Sunday, 30 June – will again feature a number of televised match-ups at the Sunday Rugby Festivals.
In a change of competition format from previous years, the SuperSport Rugby Challenge will this year be split into two sections – North and South – with the top two teams from each section progressing to the semi-finals.
To add more flavour to the already diverse venues that will see action, matches will be played at Namibia's home base in Windhoek, while the Zimbabweans, playing in the competition for the first time and featuring in the South Section, will use False Bay Rugby Club in Cape Town as their base for the duration of the tournament.
Defending champions, the ISG Pumas, will spearhead the North Section alongside the Down Touch Griffons, Leopards, Vodacom Blue Bulls, Namibia, Xerox Golden Lions XV, Tafel Lager Griquas and Valke.
The South Section will consist of the Toyota Free State XV, Cell C Sharks XV, SWD Eagles, DHL Western Province, Boland, EP Elephants, Border and Zimbabwe.
The opening match in the South Section, between Toyota Free State XV and Cell C Sharks XV, will be played as a curtain raiser to the Guinness PRO 14 clash between the Toyota Cheetahs and the Isuzu Southern Kings in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Boland and the EP Elephants will face each other in Wellington, before the weekend closes out with the televised action in East London, where entry will be free.
The action in the Northern Section gets underway Friday night with the ISG Pumas starting the defence of their crown against the Vodacom Blue Bulls in Nelspruit.
The Leopards will travel to Welkom to play the Down Touch Griffons on Saturday, Tafel Lager Griquas host the Valke, while Namibia will welcome the Xerox Golden Lions XV in Windhoek.
The SuperSport Rugby Challenge fixtures are available here: https://springboks.rugby/tournaments/league?lid=9
The first round fixtures are:
Friday 26 April:
ISG Pumas v Vodacom Blue Bulls
Venue: Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
Referee: Divan Uys
Saturday 27 April:
Boland v EP Elephants
Venue: Boland Stadium, Wellington
Referee: Archie Selako
Tafel Lager Griquas v Valke
Venue: Tafel Lager Park, Kimberley
Referee: Stephan Geldenhuys
Toyota Free State Cheetahs XV v Cell C Sharks XV
Venue: Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein
Referee: Paul Mente
Down Touch Griffons v Leopards
Venue: HT Pelatona Stadium, Welkom
Referee: Christopher Allison
Namibia v Xerox Golden Lions XV
Venue: Hage Geingob Stadium, Windhoek
Referee: Vusi Msibi
Sunday 28 April (both matches BCM Stadium, East London):
SWD v DHL Western Province
Referee: Griffin Colby
Border v Zimbabwe Academy
Referee: Ruhan Meiring