With the finals squads of the five franchises still to be named—we can still surmise that there will be the usual formidable challenge from the sides
With the emergence of the Western Stormers in last season’s competition, it is now safe to say that the South Africans, World Champions and with arguably more player depth than even New Zealand—will now field three teams capable of challenging for the 2009 Super 14 title.
February 6 will see the official release of the final squads for the season, but one week from the season kick off.
The Sharks, third place finishers in the Super 14 last year, and 2008 Currie Cup champions (their fifth title after a 12 year hiatus) will field an impressive squad headed by new coach John Plumtree.
National captain John Smit returns to the team, largely settled despite the losses of Frederic Michalak, BJ Botha, Bradley Barrett, and Johann Ackermann. With the Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck Du Plessis likely to pack down with Smit in the front, and the outstanding Ryan Kankowski (who some regarded as the premier number eight in the country) it will be a quality pack.
A dangerous looking backline that has all but confirmed that Springboks Ruan Pienaar and Francois Steyn will form the 10/12 axis—with a three quarter line littered with internationals in the form of Waylon Murray, Odwa Ndungane, Adrian Jacobs, and JP Pieterson.
They should easily reach the top four, if not the final of the competition—especially with seven home games.
The Western Stormers were unlucky not to legitimately challenge for the title last year. After losing their first three games, they won three of four on their Australasian tour (the best touring record of any South African team in history), and were unbeaten in their last six games, only a 13-13 draw to NSW effectively costing them a place in the final four.
Rassie Erasmus and his men will have to endure arguably the toughest road trip of any Super 14 team, playing Canterbury, before coming to Australia to play the Waratahs and Brumbies, before returning to New Zealand to take on the Hurricanes and Highlanders.
The bulk of the team will feature from Western Province, with few Boland players likely to feature. With warhorses Percy Montgomery and transfer AJ Venter likely playing their last domestic seasons, and with arguably South Africa’s best back and forward, Jean De Villiers and Schalk Burger in the team, they will contest but the road trip may be a bridge too far.
They will play preseason matches against Saracens and Boland before kicking off with three home games. But they will just miss out on a top four berth—as the high expectations of their faithful may see them again start the season poorly.
The Bulls, the 2007 champions, had a disappointing season last year, and rumours of discord amongst the team may not help their cause. Coach Frans Ludeke has had to fight against whispered player power struggles (highly regarded backs coach Nico Le Roux was dismissed last year after just three weeks), and he reportedly led a group of senior players away from a training camp in December of last year in revolt against poor training camp conditions.
Either way, they boast a typically strong team, with only Derick Hougaard the major loss. As always, much of their venom lies in a terrifying Springbok laden pack, with first choice Springbok locks Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha—and intimidating back rowers Danie Rossouw and Pierre Spies.
However, their ability to attack via a quality backline stuttered last year, with Bryan Habana and Fourie Du Preez having their worst seasons. If they can arrest this, with the addition of former Lion Jaco Pretorius feeding ball to Springboks JP Nel and Akona Ndungane—they may challenge.
But off field politics will cost the Bulls the chance to make the top four.
The Cheetahs will again struggle, filled with promising young talent and fielding an impressive forward unit, buttressed by Juan Smith. But lack of playmakers and game breakers will see them consigned to the bottom half of the table after winning just one game last year.
Likewise the Lions, who boast just one current Springbok, and having lost key players Jaco Pretorius and Joe Van Niekerk will again probably take the Wooden Spoon. Despite coach Eugene Eloff being highly regarded in South African circles, he does not have the quality to challenge for the title.
Last year: Third
This year: Second
FIRST GAME: V Stormers @ Cape Town
CRUCIAL GAME: Round Three V Chiefs @ Hamilton (start of four match road trip)
Last year: Fifth
This year: Top six
FIRST GAME: V Sharks @ Cape Town
CRUCIAL GAME: Round Four V Bulls @ Pretoria (only away game in first six rounds)
Last year: 10th
This year: Eighth
FIRST GAME: V Reds @ Pretoria
CRUCIAL GAME: Round Six V Hurricanes @ Wellington (start of horror five match road trip)
Last year: 13th
This year: 13th
FIRST GAME: V Lions @ Johannesburg
CRUCIAL GAME: Round Eight V Brumbies @ Bloemfontein (first home game of the season)
Last year: 14th
This year: 14th
FIRST GAME: V Cheetahs @ Johannesburg
CRUCIAL GAME: Round 14 V Waratahs @ Johannesburg (last chance to win a match)
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