Wellington's 2018 Swindale Shield draw could be the toughest yet as the union's 14 Premier clubs battle for just seven places in the slimmed-down Jubilee Cup.
The 2018 Premier club rugby season kicks off with a Gala Day round at Awakairangi and Maoribank Parks in Upper Hutt on March 17.
Early points will be more important than ever with Wellington's traditional top-eight structure cut by one team to allow for an even seven-seven split for the second round.
Reigning Swindale Shield and Jubilee Cup champions Old Boys University will kick off the defence of their titles against Poneke in one of six opening day matches at Awakairangi Park.
Avalon and Wainuiomata will be the exception to the rule with their round one match to be played over the road at Maoribank Park.
Perhaps the feature match of round one will be the clash between beaten 2017 Jubilee Cup semi-finalists Tawa and Marist St Pats, but pundits will have to wait until round ten to see a repeat of the Jubilee Cup final when Old Boys University host Hutt Old Boys Marist at Nairnville Park.
WRFU Rugby Board Chairman Peter Scott said the 2018 season shaped as being tougher than ever.
"With the new top-seven format we are going to see some very good teams miss out on the Jubilee Cup and some very accomplished teams compete for the Hardham Cup later in the year.
"I think there is no doubt the new format is going to raise the stakes during the Swindale Shield. Picking up early points on the ladder could be the difference in 2018 and I'm sure we will see some very well prepared teams when the season kicks off on March 17."
Scott said the Gala Day concept had proven popular with the Wellington rugby community.
"We saw big crowds in Upper Hutt last year and I think everyone enjoyed seeing all of our clubs coming together to celebrate the start of the premier season. Once again it shapes as the perfect way to get the season underway."
Other features of the 2018 draw include a midweek Anzac Day round on Wednesday, April 25 with the popular Derby Day round to follow on April 28.
The new seven team Jubilee Cup and Hardham Cup competitions are scheduled to kick off on Saturday, June 9.
Key points of the 2018 Premier competition:
- Gala Day - Saturday, March 17 at Awakairangi and Maoribank Parks.
- Easter - Saturday, March 31 (round three)
- ANZAC Day - Wednesday, April 25 (round seven)
- Derby Day - Saturday, April 28 (round eight)
- Jubilee & Hardham Cup Starts - Saturday, June 9
- Jubilee Cup Final - Weekend of August 4/5