It is Super Rugby time once more and with the South African squads fairly evenly balanced each team will be keen to improve on last season, we take a look at their prospects in the conference.
The South African conference has, for this year though perhaps not for next year, the same teams that it had last year - Bulls, Cheetahs, Lions, Sharks and Stormers.
Last year the Stormers topped the South African conference and were second on the Super Rugby log over all. The Sharks followed them, then the Bulls, then the Cheetahs and then the Lions. That was last year. It could all change this year as players go walkabout, the fixtures fit differently, injuries get ugly and the ball bounces oddly at times.
Players of importance still leave. The Stormers did well last year but have lost Jaque Fourie and François Louw, and then Peter Grant is dependent on his Japanese employers for his return which must be disrupting. The Sharks were second best but John Smit has gone to England and Stefan Terblanche to Ireland with Ruan Pienaar. The Bulls were third best but Victor Matfield has gone out to pasture, Bakkies Botha, Gurthrö Steenkamp and Gary Botha to France, Danie Rossouw and Fourie du Preez to Japan. That sort of thing hurts in a competition like this which is for the world's best.
The conference fixtures help - home and away against each of your countrymen, which makes for better crowds. For South Africa that means the unyielding conflicts of derbies. For Australia's top sides it means two tough matches in eight. Then you do not play all overseas opponents, and it has been tough for South African teams to travel far though the South Africans seem to be handling being away from home, jet lag and the artificial lifestyle of travel better than in the past, trying to put a more cheerful gloss on the inevitable.
If you have six matches in Australasia, the strength of the opposition counts. You would probably prefer not to pick the Reds, the Waratahs, the Crusaders and the Blues.
Initially South African teams were going to have to start the Super 15 with a bye for one of them. Last year it was the Stormers, which was regarded as unfortunate but did not seem to damage them in the long run. This time there is no bye till Week 3.
The bounce of the oval ball and the sound of the whistle produce the luck of the draw in any competition - so does what the players do, for rugby is a game of consequences. That is why it is silly to make forecasts, though there is no reason why any of the five South African teams cannot again do well. In fact it is probably time for the Cheetahs and the happy Lions to make their mark.
The Bulls have lost lots of power and experience - Victor, Bakkies, Fourie, Danie Rossouw, Gurthrö - household names in South African rugby - and Derick Kuün, Bees Roux and Stefan Watermeyer but they have gained some lively young players - JJ Engelbrecht, Johann Sadie, Jacques Potgieter and the only foreign national in their squad, Daniel Adongo, as well as seasoned men in Jano Vermaak (Why has he never played for South Africa?) and Willie Wepener. But they look like a side rebuilding and it may well take some time for the building to reach the finished product that `brought them Super Rugby titles on 2007, 2009 and 2010.
Captain: Pierre Spies
Coach: Frans Ludeke
Squad: Bjorn Basson, JJ Engelbrecht, Louis Fouche, Dean Greyling, Francois Hougaard, Zane Kirchner, Juandre Kruger, Werner Kruger, Akona Ndungane, Wynand Olivier Dewald Potgieter, Jacques Potgieter, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Johann Sadie, Pierre Spies (captain), CJ Stander, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Deon Stegmann, Dawie Steyn, Flip van der Merwe, Jano Vermaak, Willie Wepener, Morne Steyn, Francois Venter, Frik Kirsten, Arno Botha, Daniel Adongo, Warwick Tecklenburg, Jurgen Visser.
This could just be the year of the Cheetahs, the year they catch up with their prey. Last year was a troubled one - injuries and sponsorship - but they did better than in the past and included wins over the Waratahs in Sydney and the Crusaders at home. They would prefer to have Juan Smith and Coenie Oosthuizen fit and well and would probably have preferred not to have lost Sarel Pretorius and Rian Viljoen, but late last year saw the rise of teenager Johan Goosen as South Africa's best flyhalf prospect in a long, long time. The efforts of the forwards and Piet van Zyl behind them are crucial. (Van Zyl did so well last year, less well in this year's warm-up matches.)
Captain: Juan Smith/Adriaan Strauss
Coach: Naka Drotské
Squad: Lourens Adriaanse, Ryno Benjamin, Heinrich Brüssow, Hennie Daniller, Tewis de Bruyn, Justin Downey, George Earle, Robert Ebersohn, Sias Ebersohn, Andries Ferreira, Barry Geel, Johan Goosen, Cameron Jacobs, Rocco Jansen, Ashley Johnson, Pieter Labuschagne, Willie le Roux, Hercu Liebenberg, WP Nel, Dusty Noble, Trevor Nyakane, Davon Raubenheimer, Philip Snyman, Adriaan Strauss (captain), Andries Strauss, François Uys, Izak van der Westhuizen, Marcel van der Merwe, Philip van der Walt, Piet van Zyl.
Every team in South Africa should be copying them - their ability to run with the ball, off the ball and in exciting lines, rather than trying to be mechanical clones of Rod Macqueen's Brumbies of yore. The Lions' rise in the Currie Cup was wonderful. They played with such enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment - an obviously happy and spirited team where every man counted. Losing Jano Vermaak and Rory Kockott may not have been desirable but the way they play is not dependent on individualism.
Captain: Josh Strauss
Coach: John Mitchell
Squad: Patric Cilliers, CJ van der Linde, Jacobie Adriaanse, JC Janse van Rensburg, Bandise Maku, Martin Bezuidenhout, Edgar Marutlulle, Callie Visagie, Wikus van Heerden, Hendrik Roodt, Franco van der Merwe, Cobus Grobbelaar, Jaco Kriel, Derick Minnie, Michael Rhodes, Josh Strauss (captain), Warren Whiteley, Michael Bondesio, Ross Cronjé, Whestley Moolman, Butch James, Elton Jantjies, Alwyn Hollenbach, Doppies la Grange, Lionel Mapoe, Waylon Murray, Jannie Boshoff, Dylan Des Fountain, Michael Killian, Deon van Rensburg, James Kamana, Jaco Taute.
You always expect the Sharks to do well and usually they do. They have star players mixed with rising stars. They would prefer Tendai Mtawarira not to be injured but they have the Du Plessis brothers to make the best of any front row. They have lost ageing veterans in John Smit and Stefan Terblanche but they still have strong experience and young men who on the way to becoming stars - like Pieter-Steph du Toit, Marcell Coetzee and Cobus Reinach. Their halfback combination of Patrick Lambie and Frédéric Michalak could just become the most exciting in South Africa.
Captain: Keegan Daniel
Coach: John Plumtree
Squad: Dale Chadwick, Jannie du Plessis, Wiehahn Herbst, Tendai Mtawarira, Julian Redelinghuys, Craig Burden, Kyle Cooper, Monde Hadebe, Bismarck du Plessis, Anton Bresler, Alistair Hargreaves, Jan André Marais, Peet Marais, Ross Skeate, Steven Sykes, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Willem Alberts, Jacques Botes, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel (captain), Jean Deysel, Ryan Kankowski, François Kleinhans, Lubabalo Mtembu, Conrad Hoffmann, Charl McLeod, Cobus Reinach, Patrick Lambie, Frédéric Michalak, Meyer Bosman, Paul Jordaan, Marius Joubert, Wandile Mjekevu, Tim Whitehead, Heimar Williams, Lwazi Mvovo, Odwa Ndungane, JP Pietersen, Sibusiso Sithole, Louis Ludik, Gouws Prinsloo, Riaan Viljoen.
For two years in a row the Stormers - second two years in a row, beaten finalists in 2010 and smashed semifinalists in 2011. Last year the Crusaders exposed their continuing weakness. Two of their stronger men last season - CJ van der Linde and Anton van Zyl - have pushed off. Veteran (32 years of age) Deon Carstens is home from Saracens but he is unlikely to make a Bakkies Botha of a difference when forwards are being buckled. He is not their only loss as François Louw is off to Bath, Jaque Fourie to Japan for a Mt Fuji of yen, it seems and Rickie January is in Lyon, one of France's great gastronomic centres. Johann Sadie, Paul Bosch and JJ Engelbrecht have also gone. Mind you, Joe Pietersen, the promising JP du Plessis and Gerhard van den Heever could add speed and verve.
Captain: Schalk Burger
Coach: Allister Coetzee
Squad: Joe Pietersen, Gerhard van den Heever, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers, Gio Aplon, Gary van Aswegen, Louis Schreuder, Nick Köster, Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi, Andries Bekker, Rynhard Elstadt, Brok Harris, Tiaan Liebenberg, Steven Kitshoff, Deon Fourie, Deon Carstens, Siyabonga Ntubeni, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, De Kock Steenkamp, Nizaam Carr, Nic Groom, Marcel Brache, Burton Francis, Danie Poolman, Schalk Burger (captain), Juan de Jongh.
Conference prediction: In 2011 the Sharks got into the play-off and were thumped by Crusaders. They were second in the South African conference and could possibly do even better in 2012. The start - Bulls, Stormers, Lions and then Reds could set them on their way if successful.
The Cheetahs finished fourth in the conference last season, 11th overall. They are expected to do much better - possibly second place in the conference and near play-offs over all.
Last year the Lions were last in the conference, second last in the Super 15. It would be a tragedy for rugby if that happened to them again. They probably do not - yet - have the power to challenge the top and may end third in the conference somewhere about eighth or ninth in the Super 15. Then watch them.
The Stormers topped the 2011 conference and were second in the Super 15. It's hard to see it happening again. They may well subside to fourth in the conference and will below play-offs in the Super 15. That said, they have good fixtures, going offshore only in the seventh week and then have four - Highlanders, Crusaders (shudder), Reds and Force.
Last year the Bulls were third in the conference, seventh out of 15 in the Super 15. They will end considerably lower, perhaps even fifth in the conference, and not come close to July's play-offs.
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