The SuperRugby season kicks off on Friday with Australian teams getting the competition started. The five South African franchises join the fray next weekend with several burning questions still to be answered. Foremost of these is whether the Southern Kings have procured enough firepower to avoid totally embarrassing themselves and the South African Rugby Union administrators who promoted them with scant regard for on-field performance. By KEN BORLAND.
The Southern Kings have brought a dozen new players to Port Elizabeth, but they can best be described as SuperRugby journeymen. Even though hooker Bandise Maku and centres Waylon Murray and Andries Strauss are all Springboks, they are not what one would term star players capable of dominating at SuperRugby level. The Kings have also signed two seasoned Argentinean internationals in scrumhalf Nicolas Vergallo and flank Tomas Leonardi, as well as former Toulouse hooker Virgile Lacombe.
The role of captain Luke Watson, of whom opinions vary from sulky trouble-causer to inspiring team-man and leader, is going to be very important in melding such a disparate group of players into a team. Massive expenditure is no guarantee of success in a sport that depends so greatly on team cohesion and attitude.
The Kings have also incurred the wrath of many South African fans who believe their inclusion in the competition is purely on political grounds and the pressure will be on them from the outset.
All eyes will be on their opening game when they host the Western Force, who are also trying to find their feet in SuperRugby. Then, before heading off on their overseas tour, the Kings face daunting meetings with the Sharks and defending champions the Chiefs.
The other game the Kings could possibly target in search of that morale-boosting first victory will be against the Rebels in Melbourne on 13 April, but that will be the last game of their overseas tour and whether they will still be on two feet remains to be seen.
On the positive side, this year provides an ideal opportunity for talented players such as flank Daniel Adongo, flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis, centre Ronnie Cooke and lock Steven Sykes to make their mark on this semi-international stage.
The Bulls will be looking to build on their achievement in making last year’s playoffs as they showed there is still life in the union after so many of yesterday’s heroes moved on.
Pierre Spies’s team will include two new faces in utility back Lionel Mapoe and talented young lock Paul Willemse, but the Pretoria faithful will be relying on remaining stalwarts such as Morne Steyn, Spies, Flip van der Merwe, Francois Hougaard, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Wynand Olivier, Akona Ndungane and Zane Kirchner for bigger and better things in 2013.
None more so than Steyn whose eye will still be on the Springbok number 10 jersey. He can count on Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer still valuing his experience and goal-kicking ability, but he needs to play more like the dashing flyhalf of 2008/9 than a gout-ridden has-been turning out for the Blikkiesdorp over-35s.
Loose forward CJ Stander has moved on to new pastures, which counts as a big loss for the Bulls, but the likes of lock Juandre Kruger and backs JJ Engelbrecht, Francois Venter and Bjorn Basson are ready to take the next step and dominate at SuperRugby level.
The Cheetahs will be well aware that their neighbours in Gauteng are smarting over their exclusion from SuperRugby and the way their former allies in Bloemfontein helped betray them. So they will be nervous going into the SuperRugby season, desperate to avoid finishing last in the South African conference and having to face the Lions in a promotion/relegation series.
Their build-up to the campaign has not been good, with the final bell having rung on Juan Smith’s superb career and another favourite, prop Coenie Oosthuizen, still taking the first steps on his way back to recovery. The front row has been one of the Cheetahs’ premier areas of strength in recent years, but with WP Nel and Marcel van der Merwe both having left, coach Naka Drotske is a worried man, with his job under some pressure as well.
Twenty-year-old Johan Goosen is a potential match-winner for the Cheetahs and a popular choice for the Springbok number 10 jersey – he will be a key man for Drotske.
Captain Adriaan Strauss is a respected leader and brilliant hooker, but the state of the rest of the tight five will be the key factor in determining whether Goosen and other exciting backs like Sarel Pretorius, Robert Ebersohn, Johann Sadie, Raymond Rhule and Willie le Roux are able to play with the flair they are famous for.
The Cheetahs also have a bad draw: they have just a solitary home game against the Sharks before they head off overseas, their opening tour matches being against the defending champions, the Chiefs, and then the Highlanders at the House of Pain in Dunedin.
The Stormers topped the log in 2012 and are the Currie Cup champions, and there is plenty of optimism in Cape Town that they are heading into another golden age of Western Province rugby to rival that of the late 1990s/early 2000s. The SuperRugby title is the one they really want and they certainly have the players to become the second South African franchise to claim the trophy. Though their defence was famously committed and superbly organised last year, they will need to sharpen up on their attacking skills.
Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana and Schalk Burger are household names, but they have also added some potential superstars in fullback Jaco Taute and flyhalf Elton Jantjies.
Their pack also boasts Springboks in Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen, Andries Bekker and new signing Pat Cilliers, while much is expected of loose forwards Siya Kolisi and Rynhardt Elstadt.
But items up for debate are whether they have enough depth in the tight five should injuries strike, whether scrumhalves Dewaldt Duvenhage, Nic Groom and Louis Schreuder have the star quality to get the best out of a phenomenal backline also featuring Juan de Jongh, Gio Aplon and Joe Pietersen, and when Burger will actually return to action after a succession of leg injuries.
It will be necessary for the Stormers to hit the competition running as their first three games are key away trips to conference contenders the Bulls and Sharks, followed by a meeting with the Chiefs at Newlands.
The Sharks have such a wealth of talent at their disposal across almost all positions that it is becoming inexplicable that they still haven’t managed to win a SuperRugby crown.
The only items causing some concern down Durban way will be the second row, where Franco van der Merwe is the experienced import among the greenhorns, who is going to start at hooker while Bismarck du Plessis continues his rehab from knee ligament surgery, and will Frans Steyn continue to captain while Keegan Daniel recovers from a knee injury?
A dreadfully slow start to the 2012 campaign was to blame for the Sharks only finishing sixth on the log and scraping into the playoffs. Travelling to Australia, Cape Town and then to New Zealand was a bridge too far for them and they will be mindful of the need to earn home playoffs this time round.
Although the Currie Cup ultimately ended in a shock defeat to Western Province in the final, the potential was plain to see in the likes of lock Anton Bresler, scrumhalf Cobus Reinach, centres Paul Jordaan and Tim Whitehead, wing Sibusiso Sithole and fullback Louis Ludik.
The Sharks loose trio was arguably the best in the competition last year and Ryan Kankowski is back from Japan to join Marcell Coetzee, Daniel, Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel and Jacques Botes.
In Butch James, the Sharks have experienced cover for Pat Lambie in the flyhalf position, while Steyn provides muscle in midfield and JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo were inspirational on the wing last year.
The Sharks will also be spending the first eight weeks of the competition in South Africa, playing teams like the Stormers, Brumbies and Crusaders in Durban, so they should be in good spirits by the time they head overseas in the last week of April.
The Sharks will surely be in contention and, provided they don’t get in their own way, 2013 could be the year they finally get their hands on the SuperRugby trophy. DM
Photo: Sharks player JP Pietersen get past the tackle of Bulls player Francois Hougaard during their South African Super 15 rugby derby match in Durban July 6, 2012. REUTERS/Rogan Ward