Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Pretoria – As in 2013, South Africa should squeeze two teams
into the six-strong finals series phase of Super Rugby this year ... but again
only one will eventually qualify for the semi-finals.
Last season it was the Bulls, with the Cheetahs pluckily
bowing out just before that: in 2014 I envisage the Sharks getting at least to
the last four (they will be real title contenders too) and the Stormers not quite
having the collective oomph across the park to get that far although they will
be SA conference runners-up.
The chances of both the new-look Bulls and Cheetahs in
advancing cannot be completely discounted, but the Lions, alas, will be glaring
also-rans, possibly not even matching the achievement – if that is the right
word – of the Kings last season in winning three and drawing one of their
Here is my anticipated order of business in SA-specific
terms, with just the Sharks bidding compellingly for the main silverware -- most
likely with the New Zealand pair of defending champions the Chiefs and always
Some people are talking up the remodelled Waratahs, and the
Reds will also be potential finals series material, but this will be a largely
dry Australian campaign, by my book.
Here’s my SA-angled verdict ...
thing the Bulls have in their favour over all other SA comers is title
pedigree: they’ve won the Super Rugby title three times and that is three more
than any domestic rival! The return of a key architect of that golden run
(2007-2010) in Victor Matfield to the playing fray should embolden all those
around him at Loftus. But will it be enough to make the Bulls realistic
contenders in 2014? I fear not; they are still in recovery from another worrisome
wave of departures of senior pros and face a season or two of rebuilding –
there will be problematic moments along the way, though the Bulls should still
win more often than they lose at their hostile home this season. Psst, when is
their scrummaging going to come right?
... they’ve opted for the prime beef of Paul Willemse and Flip van der Merwe as
combo (combined weight some 245kg) for the first-up challenge of the Sharks,
and if you can have one Victor Matfield lurking on the bench and the useful
Grant Hattingh not even in the immediate mix, the second row situation seems
pretty secure at Loftus.
Flyhalf ... well, that was always going to be a snag once Morne Steyn (almost
1,500 points, 2005-13!) decided to further his career in faraway France, wasn’t
it? Steyn tended to steer notably clear of major injury over the years and his
void has left the Bulls understandably low on Super Rugby experience in the No
10 jersey. Between Louis Fouche and still-teenaged Handre Pollard there are
massive shoes to fill over the next few months.
playing either of the Crusaders or Reds is a useful development ... and
entertaining the limited Rebels at Loftus in the final conference-phase fixture
should also cause no grumbles, if the Bulls are challenging for a playoffs slot
then. The overseas leg (Hurricanes, Highlanders, Waratahs, Force) could have
been worse, too.
3rd in SA conference, no playoffs
in SA conference, 2nd overall, losing semi-finalists
often branded every non Bloem-based South African’s favourite other team ...
and rightly so because the Cheetahs play good, buccaneering rugby. As last
season showed, they are capable of punching well above their smallish-union
weight, too: it was an awesome achievement to reach the finals series. My gut
feeling, though, is that even with ace young player Johan Goosen fit again
(touch wood!) and restored to the flyhalf slot, 2013 was the Cheetahs’ season
of surprise and they will struggle to knock over as many big outfits this time.
Not comfortably, it must be said, I even have them ending behind the
transitional-phase Bulls in the conference, though that pick could be proved
off the mark ...
forward ... and particularly when Heinrich Brussow (hopefully back fit for the
post-tour phase) brings his low-centre-of-gravity skills to the party. Philip
van der Walt and Lappies Labuschagne will be expected to repeat their dynamism
of last year’s campaign.
Centre ... simply because Robert Ebersohn meant so much to the Cheetahs in
midfield, not only as a strategist and slippery customer but also through his
amazing turnover ability at times. Now Ebersohn is Montpellier-based, however,
and although Francois Venter is a tidy acquisition, not quite in the same
league. Johann Sadie? He blows hot and cold.
reasonable, in the sense that the chance presents itself for a good start:
Lions and Bulls at home, then first overseas fixture against the Rebels in
Melbourne. So a “three from three” record is not out of the question, plus the
Cheetahs will be back from their early-autumn travels knowing that there’s a
long stretch of games ahead all on local soil.
4th in SA conference, no playoffs
in SA conference, 6th overall, lost in 1st round of
would love to be able to get excited about a possible new era in the Big Smoke,
especially as youngish coach Johan Ackermann has restored key elements of pride
to the Lions’ mix. But that is more of a phenomenon at domestic level: will
that “gees” be enough to provide a credible challenge in their first season
back in Super Rugby? I’m afraid my strong suspicion is not. Along with a couple
of traditionally lame-duck Aussie sides, the Lions will be prime candidates for
the basement spot overall. There’s just not enough quality (with respect to
Franco van der Merwe, Elton Jantjies etc) to match likely desire.
um ... let’s come back to that one some time, shall we? OK, they look
reasonably well-staffed at loose forward.
Props ... both loosehead and tighthead. Nobody of proven Super Rugby repute,
especially now that inspirational JC Janse van Rensburg has moved abroad.
it probably won’t matter a great deal, though at least they begin with four
derbies, which should get their “Currie Cup” juices flowing a bit. They are
unlikely to beat any of the Chiefs, Highlanders or Waratahs on their overseas
leg, though just maybe they can cheekily target a narrow triumph in the Perth
stopover on the way back against the Force ... if they aren’t in too much
fatigue- or injury-related disarray by then.
5th in SA conference, no playoffs
their forgettable and injury-ravaged 2013 Super Rugby campaign, the Sharks have
seemingly done everything right in revitalising their arsenal for 2014. New CEO
in John Smit, new director of rugby in Jake White ... and a couple of astute
acquisitions to the playing staff. Critics everywhere believe they’re semis
material this time around at the very, very least. It’s hard not to concur. Of
course it’s one thing to talk up a team’s chances, quite another for the troops
to match that expectation on the park. After all, the Sharks seem to have a bit
of a jinx in this competition, starting with that “didn’t hear the siren”
little episode in the 2007 final when the Bulls snatched the silverware from
right under their disbelieving noses.
Tighthead prop ... it’s an enviable situation for the Sharks to not only have
gnarly Bok No 3 incumbent Jannie du Plessis in the mix, as ever, but
newly-capped international Lourens Adriaanse as understudy and Wiehahn Herbst
(though he lost some oomph in the second half of last season) also challenging
for the berth. Most franchises would gleefully snap up any one of ‘em.
... tough one. And that’s possibly why the Sharks are so fancied this year,
come to think of it.
Favourable! Nine matches on SA soil and seven of them in Durban to start with
is a wonderful chance for momentum. The down side is touring Australasia
relatively late, when the weather may just be turning, and ending the
conference phase with successive away derbies (Bloemfontein and then Cape
Town). No Force clash, sadly ... but also no Chiefs, on the plus side.
1st in SA conference, possible finalists
in SA conference, 8th overall
been the most consistent South African outfit over the course of three or four
seasons, though all but their most ardent supporters will rapidly add: “Where
has it got them?” Somehow, they continue to be tripped or to fall over their
own feet when the business end arrives. Allister Coetzee’s charges will be
competitive again, and potential finals series material because of their dogged
ability not to lose matches (er, rather than win them in style sometimes). But
do they have enough X-factor to go all the way in 2014? I suspect not, mostly
on the grounds that depth is a tad too low in some positions – see below – and
once staple figures like Bryan Habana and Andries Bekker have moved on. Only
getting Eben Etzebeth back around the midway mark, and with ongoing injury woes
afflicting Juan de Jongh, doesn’t help the cause, but they’ll play
hang-in-there rugby. As usual ...
forward ... you can rattle off names (including some like Messrs Elstadt and
Rhodes who can double in the second row, and one at hooker) until the cows come
Wings ... the loss of both Habana and Gerhard van den Heever will be felt, plus
that dynamite in a small package, Cheslin Kolbe, misses the first few weeks. At
the time of writing, the Stormers were in the market for a muscular wide man,
so that may help the situation. First-choice scrumhalf is also a murky
... beginning with this unhelpful first-round bye (no points for it, nogal!).
Victories over both the Lions next week and then Hurricanes at Newlands
thereafter will be vital, as they face the proverbial tour from hell
immediately afterwards (Crusaders, Chiefs, Brumbies, Reds ... no mugs among
them). Still, that eternal optimist Jean de Villiers sees a bright side: a long,
all SA-based run-in to the finals series, including home games against the
Bulls and Sharks to finish.
2nd in SA conference, finals series but not onward to semis
in SA conference, 7th overall
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