South Africaís big four franchises, and a little new one, kick off their Vodacom SuperRugby campaigns this weekend. In the meatiest clashes, the Bulls take on the Stormers on home turf and the Sharks look for early dominance in the Cheetahsí lair. And all eyes will be on minnows the Southern Kings as they debut against the Western Force. By KEN BORLAND.
The Southern Kings have neither the funds nor the players that the Bulls and Stormers do, but there will be as much attention on their Vodacom SuperRugby debut in Port Elizabeth as there will be on the humdinger expected at Loftus Versfeld for the north/south clash.
The Western Force should provide reasonable opposition and at least some chance of victory for the Kings, but the downside for the competition newbies is that there has been precious little time for their team to gel as a unit for one of the games they would have targeted for a win.
Captain Luke Watson has a key role for the Kings in this regard and is one of the few members of their squad who knows what SuperRugby is all about, having played in 82 matches for the Stormers and Sharks.
Lock Steven Sykes, centre Andries Strauss and hooker Bandise Maku have also played enough SuperRugby to know what to expect, but such is the pace and intensity of the southern hemisphere competition that the Kings are most definitely being thrown into the deep end. Most observers expect defeat on Saturday to be the precursor to a series of batterings for the Eastern Cape minnows.
While many are eagerly preparing themselves to mock the Kings’ efforts this season, the chance their participation gives the likes of former Western Province flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis, 18-year-old SA Schools wing Sergeal Petersen, fullback SP Marais and young forwards Wimpie van der Walt and David Bulbring to play on this stage should be welcomed.
The Kings enter a whole new world at 19:10 on Saturday night, but at the same time on Friday night, all eyes will be on Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria when two of the title contenders clash.
The Stormers will be chasing a third successive win on that hallowed turf and victory will certainly set them on their way to another strong challenge.
Some key injuries will count heavily against them, though. Schalk Burger’s imminent return has just turned out to be a fanciful yarn, while the absence of lock Eben Etzebeth means the Bulls pack now nears the Stormers’ in terms of physicality and ability.
The absence of hooker Tiaan Liebenberg and centre Juan de Jongh, both Springboks, are further spokes in the Stormers’ wheel, but eighthman Duane Vermeulen is a man who can inspire a forward pack and there is still plenty of quality in the backline.
Elton Jantjies has been entrusted with the number 10 jersey and the responsibility of sparking that backline, with the Stormers also calling on the experience of Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana to ensure they keep calm in the cauldron of Loftus.
Bulls captain Pierre Spies called the Stormers/Western Province the best team in South Africa last year and he is aware that the Bulls’ prospects in their second season since the Great Trek saw the likes of Matfield, Du Preez, Rossouw and the two Bothas depart, will be measured against how they perform against the 2012 SA Conference winners.
The Stormers can expect little leeway from a Bulls side that will be steely in midfield with Wynand Olivier teaming up with JJ Engelbrecht, and physical up front with the likes of Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Flip van der Merwe and Werner Kruger thriving on the tight exchanges.
While the Bulls and Stormers are competing for an early psychological edge and a quick start to the competition, the Cheetahs start their campaign aware that they are already probably standing on the ledge with a huge drop beneath them.
Taking on last year’s two finalists – the Sharks in Bloemfontein on Saturday and then the defending champions Chiefs in Hamilton next weekend – is not the kindest of draws for the Cheetahs, who will be keeping an eye on the progress of the Kings lest they get caught up in the horror of promotion/relegation at the end of the season.
And the Sharks are obviously over the “bogey side” phenomenon, having beaten the Cheetahs in their last four encounters.
It will be a massive blow to the Cheetahs’ confidence if they lose at home hours before flying to New Zealand, but it is a very real possibility given the depth, experience and quality that the Sharks will be bringing to Bloemfontein.
And it does not help the home side’s cause that the one area of improvement the Sharks are focusing on is starting the competition well, after they lost four of their first seven matches last year, which came back to haunt them in the end as they had to travel for all their playoff games.
The Cheetahs backline is a dangerous one, however, with Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn and Raymond Rhule all players that should be on the radar of Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer. Johan Goosen is back at flyhalf to direct the show, while scrumhalf Piet van Zyl is one of the most improved players in South African rugby.
The Sharks backline is blessed with current Springboks though in JP Pietersen, Frans Steyn, Pat Lambie and Lwazi Mvovo, while Louis Ludik and Paul Jordaan are great talents.
The Sharks loose trio is regarded as one of the best in the competition and will play a key role as defenders and stiflers of the quick ball that makes the creative Cheetahs so threatening.
Veteran Lions lock Franco van der Merwe makes his debut as a Shark in the number five jersey alongside Anton Bresler, who emerged as one of the country’s most promising second-rowers in last year’s Currie Cup.
Jannie du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira are as formidable a pair of props as their journeymen Cheetahs counterparts, Trevor Nyakane and Lourens Adriaanse, could hope to come up against.
Coenie Oosthuizen is on the bench for the Cheetahs but, as one of just four Springboks against the 14 in the Sharks’ squad, not even he can provide enough firepower to avoid the home side being rank underdogs. DM
Friday: Highlanders v Chiefs (Dunedin); Rebels v Brumbies (Melbourne).
Saturday: Hurricanes v Blues (Wellington); Reds v Waratahs (Brisbane).
South African teams
Bulls: Zane Kirchner, Lionel Mapoe, JJ Engelbrecht, Wynand Olivier, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Morné Mellett. Replacements: Willie Wepener, Frik Kirsten, Grant Hattingh, Arno Botha, Jano Vermaak, Louis Fouché, Francois Venter.
Stormers: Jaco Taute, Gio Aplon, Jean de Villiers, Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Elton Jantjies, Nic Groom, Duane Vermeulen, Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi, Andries Bekker, De Kock Steenkamp, Pat Cilliers, Deon Fourie, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Martin Bezuidenhout, Frans Malherbe, Don Armand, Nizaam Carr, Dewaldt Duvenage, Gerhard van den Heever, Joe Pietersen.
Cheetahs: Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Johan Goosen, Piet van Zyl, Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne, Frans Viljoen, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Coenie Oosthuizen, Waltie Vermeulen, Boom Prinsloo, Sarel Pretorius, Elgar Watts, Ryno Benjamin.
Sharks: Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Frans Steyn, Lwazi Mvovo, Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Ryan Kankowski, Marcell Coetzee, Jacques Botes, Franco van der Merwe, Anton Bresler, Jannie du Plessis, Craig Burden, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jean Deysel, Charl McLeod, Meyer Bosman, Odwa Ndungane.
Southern Kings: SP Marais, Sergeal Petersen, Ronnie Cooke, Andries Strauss, Marcello Sampson, Demetri Catrakilis, Shaun Venter, Luke Watson, Wimpie van der Walt, Cornell du Preez, Steven Sykes, David Bulbring, Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Edgar Marutlulle, Jaco Engels, Daniel Adongo, Jacques Engelbrecht, Johan Herbst, George Whitehead, Hadleigh Parkes.
Photo by Reuters