The Super 14 champion Crusaders face a tough opening match against the Chiefs when they begin their defence in February.
The Crusaders have dominated the southern hemisphere's top provincial championship over the past decade, winning seven of the last 11 finals, but will be without All Blacks first-five Dan Carter after he opted to play a season in France.
The New South Wales Waratahs, runners-up to the Crusaders in 2005 and again this year, also face a torrid opening match away to the Hurricanes but are drawn to play seven of their first nine games at home.
The competition kicks off on February 13 when the Highlanders host the ACT Brumbies in Dunedin.
Then the Blues will play the Western Force in Perth before the competition switches to South Africa for the clash between the Lions and Central Cheetahs in Johannesburg.
The Crusaders and Hurricanes Wellington host their games the following day before the opening round finishes in South Africa.