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    Only Sharks to make last 4

    2014-02-14 09:03
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    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 conference clashes.

    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 thereabouts Crusaders.

    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 ...   

    BULLS

    General:

    The one 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?  

    Most depth:

    Lock ... 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.

    Least depth:

    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.

    Itinerary:

    Not 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.

    Predicted finish:

    3rd in SA conference, no playoffs

    Last season:

    1st in SA conference, 2nd overall, losing semi-finalists

    CHEETAHS

    General:

    They are 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 ...  

    Most depth:

    Loose 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.

    Least depth:

    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.  

    Itinerary:

    Pretty 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. 

    Predicted finish:

    4th in SA conference, no playoffs

    Last season:

    2nd in SA conference, 6th overall, lost in 1st round of finals series

    LIONS

    General:

    You 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.

    Most depth:

    Er, um ... let’s come back to that one some time, shall we? OK, they look reasonably well-staffed at loose forward.

    Least depth:

    Props ... both loosehead and tighthead. Nobody of proven Super Rugby repute, especially now that inspirational JC Janse van Rensburg has moved abroad.

    Itinerary:

    Sadly, 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.  

    Predicted finish:

    5th in SA conference, no playoffs

    Last season:

    Not applicable

    SHARKS

    General:

    Since 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. 

    Most depth:

    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.

    Least depth:

    Hmm ... tough one. And that’s possibly why the Sharks are so fancied this year, come to think of it.

    Itinerary:

    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.

    Predicted finish:

    1st in SA conference, possible finalists

    Last season:

    4th in SA conference, 8th overall

    STORMERS

    General:

    They’ve 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 ... 

    Most depth:

    Loose 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 home!

    Least depth:

    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 area. 

    Itinerary:

    Tough ... 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.

    Predicted finish:

    2nd in SA conference, finals series but not onward to semis

    Last season:

    3rd in SA conference, 7th overall

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    25 April 2014
    • Blues v Waratahs, Auckland 07:35
    • Brumbies v Chiefs, Canberra 09:40
    • Sharks v Highlanders, Durban 19:10
    26 April 2014
    • Hurricanes v Reds, Wellington 09:35
    • Western Force v Bulls, Perth 11:40
    • Cheetahs v Stormers, Bloemfontein 17:05
    02 May 2014
    • Blues v Reds, Auckland 09:35
    • Melbourne Rebels v Sharks, Melbourne 11:40

    Results

    19 April 2014
    18 April 2014
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    11 April 2014
    05 April 2014
    04 April 2014
    29 March 2014
    28 March 2014
    22 March 2014
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    15 March 2014
    14 March 2014
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    22 February 2014
    21 February 2014
    15 February 2014

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