Super Rugby 2014 Preview: South African Conference

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BULLS

For the second consecutive year the Bulls have lost a number of their experienced stalwarts. Whilst they performed much better than anticipated last year, the fact that they’ve said farewell to both pivots as well as their first choice hooker and fullback means 2014 might not turn out that well.

Never a team to be underestimated and loaded with very talented youngsters, it is clear that the Bulls’ coaching staff are going through a rough time. Victor Matfield has come out of retirement and Derick Hougaard could follow, and both are training hard for a spot in the new camouflage jerseys. Even though their newly acquired players have star quality, I fear that the likes of Piet van Zyl, Handrè Pollard and Jan Serfontein just don’t have the experience yet.

The way I see it the Bulls have a reasonable chance of scalping the lowly ranked teams on their tour and they’ll fight all the way against most of the middle order in the Bullring, but I just don’t see them reaching the play-offs. Being clinical and executing their tried and tested game plan will be crucial and therein lies my issue with this young team. The players are still adventurous and more willing to throw caution to the wind than the coaches, which will probably see them on the losing side a little too often.

Predicted finish on SA Log: 4th

CHEETAHS

In 2013 the Cheetahs ended with their highest ever log finish, pipping the Stormers and Sharks for a spot in the play-offs. They will start the season full of confidence and with an established squad.

The loss of Piet van Zyl will be offset by the good form of Sarel Pretorius and they now have the exciting Kings’ scrummy Shaun Venter in the mix as well. With Robert Ebersohn plying his trade in France now, some issues could arise in midfield, especially in defence, but having strong running Francois Venter there to combine with Johan Sadie will certainly go a long way to plugging the Ebersohn-shaped gap. Hopefully it will be an injury free year for Johan Goosen to shine.

Depth has always been a problem for the Free State side and a lucky run without serious injuries allowed them to field a consistent team last year. If the gods of rugby again smile upon them, I don’t see any reason for them not to repeat their successful 2013 season, if not better that record. The Cheetahs often struggle against sides with tight defensive structures and often leak too many tries with their high risk rugby. However, I believe that they have upped their close game and are working very hard to better their defence. With the amount of game changers in their line-up, they will be even more balanced this year. Couple that with a bit of buoyancy and you might just see a team that will be gunning for it right up to the end.

Predicted finish on SA Log: 2nd

LIONS

Back from the rugby wilderness after sneaking past the Kings in the relegation matches, the Lions will return to the big arena this year. Aside from recalling their loans during the off-season, the Lions haven’t been shopping for high profile players and will enter this year’s competition with a settled squad.

Even though I have a high regard for a handful of the Lions, I just don’t think that they are good enough for this level. When looking through their squad, the likes of Derick Minnie, Jaco Kriel, Willie Britz, Warren Whiteley, Stokkies Hanekom, Andries Coetzee and Elton Jantjies all have the potential to impress, but sadly it just seems that as a team they won’t have the firepower due to the fact that each and every one of their stars will more than likely play second fiddle to his opposite number in the majority of their games.

Having managed only 12 wins over their last five years of mixing it with the cream of Southern Hemisphere rugby, I very much doubt them having a miracle season and it should only be a bottom of the log battle for the wooden spoon. They will need to find their feet again quickly and on this fast paced level that is no easy feat.

Predicted finish on SA Log: 5th

SHARKS

Ever since the news was made public that Jake White would join the Durban-based side as Director of Rugby, the media and rugby community have been buzzing with expectation. The number of Springboks in the Sharks squad goes well into double figures and there has been very little stock movement in the pre-season.

On the other hand it’s been major re-shuffle of coaching staff that’s been the topic on everybody’s lips. It does not matter how ‘unfaithful’ Jake ‘the Snake’ is being regarded in some circles, home and abroad, the fact is that one cannot underestimate the level of confidence a coach of his calibre brings to the table.

Although the Sharks displayed very little of what they can do against Saracens in a warm-up match, they are the team to be feared most in South Africa at this stage. They have depth and a large number of players with superior quality. There is a lot of hype surrounding the Durbanites and if it all goes to plan they’ll definitely be contenders for the cup, but on the flip side it could blow up in their faces. I would still never take my eyes off them as I see them as a very dangerous outfit.

Predicted finish on SA Log: 1st

STORMERS

The Stormers pride themselves on their defence and I’ll expect nothing more and nothing less from them this season. They’ll tackle for all they’re worth, keep the ball close and truck the ball up in the maul as often as possible. They’ve been known to be a team that look more comfortable without the ball than with it, a fact that isn’t likely to change soon under the current coaching staff.

They will start the season on the back foot with two of their stalwarts missing as Andries Bekker is over in France and Eben Etzebeth is on crutches. They have, however, brought in Argentinian international Manuel Carizza as lock cover with Demetri Catrakilis making his way back to the Western Province after an impressive rookie season with the Kings.

Cape Town’s pride and joy also has a large number of Springboks in their ranks, but it is their game plan and the utilisation of their star-studded line-up that disappoint more often than not. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they again concede the fewest tries, as they’ve done year after year since 2008, but it’s a plan that’s got them nowhere near the spoils of becoming Super Rugby Champions. To be serious contenders you need to accumulate points as well, and they mysteriously misfire on that front despite the dangerous individuals in their backline.

Predicted finish on SA Log: 3rd

By Jackie Smit

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