Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Sharks based on healthiest overall squad depth ... or Stormers for the striking kindness of their itinerary?
That was the dilemma I faced in trying to decide which South African team might go furthest in much-altered Super Rugby 2016, beginning this weekend and marked by an increased emphasis, regrettably, on how each team’s individual annual fixture list influences their prospects.
In the end the Stormers’ significantly more lightweight roster (this will be a year when they blissfully sidestep New Zealand opposition in ordinary season and they also play eight of their 15 games at Newlands) swayed my thinking – though I should add that I can’t bring myself to believe they will be genuine title material.
The ever-determined and unified Lions should be increasingly respectable once they have got a tough, immediate overseas tour firmly out of the way, and are my fancy for effective third spot in a moderate-to-poor SA pecking order this year.
But the once-mighty Bulls, dealt an additional blow to their rebuilding plans recently when Handre Pollard was ruled out for the entire year, could struggle to be anything but mediocre and the Cheetahs and Kings simply don’t have remotely the star quality to be anything but nether-regions campaigners.
Here is a suggested domestic bragging-rights ladder for the SA sextet this season, from best down to worst:
Itinerary kindness rating: 8/10
Comment: Enjoy this schedule while you can, Stormers; it will seldom be so favourable again. They avoid all NZ foes in ordinary season (that country provided very much the best collective effort in 2015), play one more home game than they do away and have a good spacing of byes. And that’s not all, as they say in those ads ... a short tour of Australia late on for games against the Rebels and Force has some potential for a 100 percent record, whilst their single encounter with big coastal rivals the Sharks is in Cape Town. If they’re tussling for a QF spot into the key last weekend, then why not the Kings at Newlands, either?
Itinerary: Bulls (h), Cheetahs (a), Sharks (h), Brumbies (h), Jaguares (a), bye, Sunwolves (h), Lions (a), Reds (h), Waratahs (h), bye, Sunwolves (a), Bulls (a), Cheetahs (h), June gap, Rebels (a), Force (a), Kings (h).
Last season: 3rd overall, SA conference winners: 10 wins, 1 draw, 5 losses in ordinary season. Losing quarter-finalists.
2016 prediction: Comfortable quarter-finalists; I am wary of envisaging further than that as they are strong in some positions but detrimentally thin in others like vital playmaking role of flyhalf.
Itinerary kindness rating: 5.5/10
Comment: Perhaps the best thing to say is that if they can prosper with their 2016 stinker in fixture terms, imagine what 2017 might hold for the Sharks? They have only seven of their 15 matches in Durban, and play all the NZ heavyweights ... including a formidable stretch when they tackle the Blues, champion Highlanders and Chiefs away on successive weekends, and fly home to immediately face the Hurricanes! There is also a pretty useless bye straight before the June Test window. Some comfort is closing their programme (hopefully with a certain Mr Lambie well back in the saddle by then?) with a pair of appealing Kings Park dates: Cheetahs, Sunwolves. That might be the turbo-charge they need for the quarter-finals.
Itinerary: Kings (a), Jaguares (h), Stormers (a), Bulls (a), Crusaders (h), bye, Lions (h), Blues (a), Highlanders (a), Chiefs (a), Hurricanes (h), Jaguares (a), Kings (h), bye, June gap, Lions (a), Cheetahs (h), Sunwolves (h).
Last season: 11th overall, 4th in SA conference: 7 wins, 9 losses in ordinary season.
2016 prediction: Will overcome roster from hell to reach quarter-finalists, aided by having rosy second- and even third-choice options in quite a few berths.
Itinerary kindness rating: 7/10
Comment: If the Lions can down the novice Sunwolves in their Tokyo opener on Saturday, expected defeats on the remainder of their Asian/Australasian tour (Chiefs and Highlanders) won’t be a train smash. That’s because Johan Ackermann’s charges then only play in the Big Smoke or do short-range domestic travel right the way through to July 16, when they visit the Jaguares in Buenos Aires on the last weekend of ordinary-season activity. In between, there’s plenty of room for prosperity, especially as they have an 8-7 weighting in favour of home clashes.
Itinerary: Sunwolves (a), Chiefs (a), Highlanders (a), Cheetahs (h), bye, Crusaders (h), Sharks (a), Stormers (h), Kings (a), Hurricanes (h), bye, Blues (h), Jaguares (h), Bulls (a), June gap, Sharks (h), Kings (h), Jaguares (a).
Last season: 8th overall, 2nd in SA conference: 9 wins, 1 draw, 6 losses in ordinary season.
2016 prediction: Fair shout for quarter-finals; will play some polished and passionate rugby despite relative lack of true superstars.
Itinerary kindness rating: 6/10
Comment: It’s no bad thing that in a season when they will embarking on a likely new, more daring game-plan and with an engine room lacking many of the earthy icons of old, the Loftus men are another SA outfit to duck the NZ quintet this year. Still, Brumbies and Waratahs among a three-match stretch in Oz is a tough ask and they must undertake international trips three times during the campaign, when you consider the need to also visit Singapore and Buenos Aires for once-off encounters. They could be the SA side most impeded by time-zone switches.
Itinerary: Stormers (a), Rebels (h), bye, Sharks (h), Sunwolves (a), Cheetahs (h), Kings (a), Reds (h), bye, Force (a), Brumbies (a), Waratahs (a), Stormers (h), Lions (h), June gap, Jaguares (a), Sunwolves (h), Cheetahs (a).
Last season: 9th overall, 3rd in SA conference: 7 wins, 9 losses in ordinary season.
2016 prediction: Not quite enough oomph to reach QFs in a transitional season. Formerly “bullying” pack could take strain against better foes, though first-choice front row of Nyakane-Strauss-Van der Merwe is solid enough.
Itinerary kindness rating: 6.5/10
Comment: Franco Smith’s charges start (two games, actually) and finish their programme in Bloemfontein, so that’s a handy hallmark. And by playing the possibly vulnerable Sunwolves both home and away, a “double” there will fortify their position in Africa Conference 1. But three fixtures on the trot in Australia is demanding, and they probably won’t be branded favourites on any of those occasions – especially with blue-chip names like Le Roux, Oosthuizen and Brussow regrettably departed. Remember there’s also no more “Super Sarel” for outrageous breaks ...
Itinerary: Jaguares (h), Stormers (h), Sunwolves (a), Lions (a), Brumbies (h), Bulls (a), bye, Sunwolves (h), Rebels (a), Reds (a), Waratahs (a), Kings (h), bye, Stormers (a), June gap, Force (h), Sharks (a), Bulls (h).
Last season: 12th overall, 5th in SA conference: 5 wins, 11 losses in ordinary season.
2016 prediction: Among strugglers; occasional upsets when vintage “Free State rugby” clicks in only.
Itinerary kindness rating: 6/10
Comment: Hate to have to say this, but will their roster really matter that much? Run through it for yourself and see how many games you fancy as truly winnable for the Kings. (Sunwolves and Jaguares in the Friendly City might be my own, lone picks.) They may fancy a cheeky stab at upsetting the Cheetahs - but that once-off clash is a little inconveniently in Bloemfontein. Not aiding the crisis-torn franchise is a very early bye (round two), before a three-game challenge against the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes - two of them abroad - that are bound to induce some score-line winces ...
Itinerary: Sharks (h), bye, Chiefs (h), Crusaders (a), Hurricanes (a), Sunwolves (h), Bulls (h), bye, Lions (h), Jaguares (a), Blues (h), Cheetahs (a), Sharks (a), Jaguares (h), June gap, Highlanders (h), Lions (a), Stormers (a).
Last season: Absent
2016 prediction: Near-random collection of Traveling Wilburys; lovable underdogs but constant basement-dwellers, alas.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing