Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Cape Town - There seems to be consensus among South African players and coaches that this first season of the expanded 15-team Super Rugby competition will see a resurgence in the challenge mounted by New Zealand.
The South African launch of the competition, which kicks off on Saturday week and will endure through to the second weekend of July, featuring 16 league matches per team followed by a six team knock-out stage, took place on Tuesday, with the main launch happening in Johannesburg simultaneously with satellite mini-launches in Durban and Cape Town.
At the Cape Town launch most of the Stormers players were in agreement that apart from the champion Bulls, this year the teams to be feared would be the ones from New Zealand. They echoed what was said by representatives of the other teams on the SuperSport simulcast from Johannesburg.
“If you think about it they were quite unlucky last year, I don’t think you should write off the Kiwis as they have a lot of depth in talent and this season they will feel they have a point to prove,” said Stormers prop Brok Harris.
The Stormers won all their games against New Zealand teams last year en route to a place in the final, where they were beaten by the Bulls. Harris is hopeful that his team can go one better this year by lifting the trophy.
“The competition is going to be extremely tough, but I disagree that we have a problem with playing in finals. I think we went through a psychological barrier when we won both our semi-finals, in the Super 14 and the Currie Cup, last year. That proved to us that we can win the big knock-out games and handle that pressure,” he said.
The fact the Rugby World Cup is being hosted this year in New Zealand is the main reason that No8 Duane Vermeulen, perhaps the unluckiest South African player not to represent the Springboks last year, is backing the Kiwis to do well.
“They are going to be extra motivated this year because of the World Cup being in their country,” said Vermeulen.
“All the New Zealand players are going to be busting a gut to try and make it into the World Cup squad. The whole World Cup vibe is going to start early for them and it is going to be a motivating force. They will all want to be part of the special experience of playing for the All Blacks in a home World Cup. There is also the question of momentum.
“The All Blacks were very good in the Tri-Nations last year, where they recovered well from their previous season, where they really struggled. So the momentum is up now for New Zealand and they will be wanting to keep it that way as the country heads towards the World Cup.”
Vermeulen agreed that there would be extra pressure on the Stormers this year after they made the final last year and then followed it up by making the final of the Currie Cup.
“The expectation is high, we can feel it, and that does bring more pressure, but it is a pressure we are just going to have to handle,” said Vermeulen, who believes the Stormers have more depth now than they had a year ago.
Looking across the board, that would appear to be the case for most South African teams, with the Lions in particular having grown a great deal since they bombed so spectacularly to finish without a single victory in last year’s competition.
John Mitchell turned the union around in the Currie Cup in 2010, and the early indications in 2011, with the side thumping the Sharks in a pre-season friendly last week, are that the Johannesburg team are equipped to be competitive.
The Sharks, after struggling 12 months ago, grew immeasurably in the second half of last year, with their quick tempo game winning them the Currie Cup. Although they lost to the Lions, they dominated the Stormers for 65 minutes of the final Neo Africa Tri-Series match at Newlands and should start this season much better than they did the last.
The Bulls have won the competition for two years in a row, and with the wizard, Fourie du Preez, back at scrumhalf after recovering from the operation that kept him from playing for the Springboks last year, it would be a foolish person who predicts that they won’t be in the mix when the business end of the competition arrives.
Of course, that stage does arrive a lot later this year, with the conference system and the double round of games against fellow South African sides ensuring that this will be a season that taxes resources more than ever before. Whereas the previous Super seasons represented an ultra-marathon, the competition now resembles a stage race held over several days.
The three participating countries each have five teams in the competition, and those five team make up their conferences, with the top sides from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia automatically winning through to the knock-outs, with the wild cards for the top six coming from the teams that are next best in terms of log points across the various conferences.
The third placed team will play the sixth placed team and the fourth will host the fifth in the first round of knock-out fixtures – essentially a quarter-final round – with the winners advancing to the semi-final against the top two teams (lowest ranked qualifier versus top ranked team, higher ranked qualifier against second ranked team).