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South African Super Rugby Conference Preview

The Bulls were the last team to win a title for SA and were conference winners in 2013

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Article Published: Thursday 13 February 2014






The 2014 Super Rugby season kicks off this weekend with an all South African round of action featuring the Cheetahs vs the Lions and the Sharks vs the Bulls.

Here we take a brief look at the South African teams and what could lie ahead for the South African Super Rugby franchises.

BULLS

Coach: Frans Ludeke

Captain: Pierre Spies

Stadium: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria

Best finish: Champions (2007, 2009, 2010)

Bookies Odds to win 2014 Super Rugby title : Bulls 21/1

A tough season awaits the three-time champions after a mass exodus of stars to Europe and Japan, including perennial match-winner Morne Steyn.

He has moved to France and his remarkable goal-kicking accuracy is sure to be severely missed. Second-choice fly-half Louis Fouche and the emerging Handre Pollard will compete to replace the Springbok fly-half.

Squad depth at the Bulls still allows them to call on 15 Springboks, including back-from-retirement lock Victor Matfield, 36.

Matfield quit rugby after the defending champions made a last-eight exit from the 2011 World Cup, but flopped as a TV analyst before faring better assisting Bulls coach Frans Ludeke.

Opinions are split on whether he can still shine at Super 15 level, with the Bulls saying he will be used "sparingly" at first.

Usually title contenders, the Bulls have been written off this season with many experts predicting a fourth-place finish in the South African conference.

CHEETAHS

Coach: Naka Drotske

Captain: Adriaan Strauss

Stadium: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein

Best finish: Sixth (2013)

Bookies Odds to win 2014 Super Rugby title : Cheetahs 51/1

The Cheetahs were the surprise side last year, finishing sixth overall to reach the play-offs after many campaigns that involved bottom-half struggles.

A key factor in the turn-around was improved defending following many seasons of scoring numerous tries and conceding even more.

Was the improved showing a one-off? Many pundits believe so, predicting the side will finish third in the South African conference and miss the knockout phase.

The traditional end-of-season exodus saw centre Robert Ebersohn, scrum-half Piet van Zyl and prop Lourens Adriaanse depart.

Stars who stayed include full-back Willie le Roux, injury-prone fly-half Johan Goosen, hooker and skipper Adriaan Strauss, prop Coenie Oosthuizen and flank Pieter 'Lappies' Labuschagne.

The Cheetahs should win more matches than they lose, with another top-six finish a realistic ambition.

LIONS

Coach: Johan Ackermann

Captain: Warren Whiteley

Stadium: Ellis Park, Johannesburg

Best finish: 12th (2007, 2009)

Bookies Odds to win 2014 Super Rugby title : Lions 301/1

Few pundits are giving the Lions a chance of performing even moderately well when they return to Super rugby after a one-year absence.

The Johannesburg outfit finished last in the 2012 South African conference and surrendered their Super 15 status to Eastern Cape-based Southern Kings.

A two-point aggregate win over the Kings over two legs got them back into a competition where they have consistently struggled.

With only two well-known players in the 2014 squad -- fly-half Elton Jantjies and lock Franco van der Merwe -- it is understandable that many believe the Lions will do well to avoid finishing bottom.

Coach Johan Ackermann has been praised for rebuilding a side shorn of many stars after relegation, and he favours a ball-in-hand approach. However, defensive frailties often proved expensive in the past and some culprits are still around.

SHARKS

Coach: Jake White

Captain: Bismarck du Plessis

Stadium: Kings Park, Durban

Best finish: Runners-up (2001, 2007, 2012)

Bookies Odds to win 2014 Super Rugby title : Sharks 7/1

Failure to make the play-offs last season led to on- and off-field changes with 2007 South Africa World Cup-winning captain John Smit and coach Jake White taking charge.

Retired hooker Smit, the most capped Springbok with 111 appearances, was named chief executive and he axed New Zealand-born coach John Plumtree.

Brendan Venter took charge until White returned from a successful spell in Australia with 2013 Super 15 runners-up the Brumbies.

Expectations are high, with the Springbok-saturated Sharks widely tipped to be the leading title-contenders from South Africa.

Star hooker Bismarck du Plessis is the new skipper, and elder brother Jannie and Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira complete a powerful front row.

Young lock Pieter Steph du Toit is being touted as a star of the future and the back row includes formidable ball-carrier Willem Alberts.

White must hope adventurous fly-half Patrick Lambie can regain top form after disappointing last year.

STORMERS

Coach: Allister Coetzee

Captain: Jean de Villiers

Stadium: Newlands, Cape Town

Best finish: Runners-up (2010)

Bookies Odds to win 2014 Super Rugby title : Stormers 11/1

The Stormers did not make the play-offs last season after being part of the title shake-up for many seasons, with coach Allister Coetzee now considered to be in the last-chance saloon.

Another poor season and the axe is expected to fall on a coach who puts great faith in defence.

The closest he has come to bringing the title to Cape Town is a second-place finish behind compatriots the Bulls in a Soweto final four seasons ago.

It will not help the former assistant national coach that injury has ruled Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth out for much of the campaign, with Argentine Manuel Carizza filling the gap.

The permanent loss of Bryan Habana is another major blow with the star left-wing joining an exodus to France for much larger salaries.

More encouraging for Coetzee is the return of Springbok flanker Schalk Burger after a two-year injury and illness absence.

 
 
 
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