The Super Rugby season is almost upon us, so as the resident rugby writer, I will provide you with my thoughts each week on what should be an enthralling and arduous season. Year after year, the gap between the top flight and the cellar dwellers gets smaller and there is no such thing as an easy match. Well, discounting the Kings of course, but more on that later. The way I see it, there are nine teams that will need to fit into the final six playoff spots. Three teams from each of the three conferences, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Each week, barring the first, I will provide previews on six or sevens matches (depending on byes) and there is sure to be some valuable betting options. I will tweet during the matches so look out for some valuable multi-bets and in-play opportunities. It’s a long competition, so be patient and I am sure we will all be smiling come the end of the season. 125 games to go of bone-jarring hits, enterprising running rugby and the odd penalty or ten, but I can’t be more excited in a year that sees the British and Irish Lions head south to Australia to challenge the Wallabies. When it is all said and done, I don’t expect an Australian team to win, so the Lions series might be an early reward. All conferences will be intense with some historical rivalries and the teams with the most depth often prevail. No side has ever won the entire competition finishing lower than second at the end of the regular season since 1999, so every game counts. Let’s start off by having a look at each team and I look forward to your company throughout the season! Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter at @S15_TheProfits.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Team Base: Auckland, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Eden Park
Coach: John Kirwan
Captain: Ali Williams (Lock)
When Super Rugby used to be known as the Super 12, the Blues and the Crusaders would lock heads year after year, winning three titles each. Since then, the tournament has evolved and expanded into Super Rugby and the Crusaders have gone onto bigger and better things, while in recent years, the wheels have really fallen off for the Blues. Despite being semi-finalists in 2011, the Blues had a disastrous season last year finishing in 12th position. As a result of a number of key players moving offshore and to other provinces (see below), Auckland will begin rebuilding. To the casual watcher, Auckland will have an abundance of fresh faces in 2013. Keep an eye out for Charles Piutau, as I expect big things from him. His running is incisive and his support play is excellent.
John Kirwan has been brought in by the senior administrators to help turn this club around. Coupled with a consultancy position to super-coach and world cup winning Graham Henry, if the Blues can maintain this squad and pick up a few marquee players over the next few seasons, they could be prominent in the latter half of this decade. But in the mean time, it is hard to see this once dominant Auckland team chalking up many wins, especially in such a competitive conference. I can’t see too many games where Auckland will go in as favourites (bar the Kinds and the Force), but with the pressure being on other teams to secure victory in Auckland or abroad, they might be able to steal a few wins.
Key Players Gained: Bryn Hall (Halfback), Frank Halai (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Tony Woodcock (Prop), Jerome Kaino (Flanker), Ma’a Nonu (Centre), Isaia Toeava (Utility Back)
Superstars: Kevin Mealamu (Hooker), Rene Ranger (Utility Back)
Rising Stars: Charles Piutau (Wing/Fullback), Steven Luatua (Lock/Flanker)
Prediction: The Blues WILL finish last in the New Zealand conference and in the lower quarter of the Super Rugby log.
Team Base: Hamilton, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Waikato Stadium
Coach: Dave Rennie
Captains: Craig Clarke (Lock) and Liam Messam (Flanker)
Since the start of the toughest provincial rugby competition in the world in 1996, only 3 teams (Blues, Crusaders and Bulls) on 5 occasions have managed to match the levels of adulation and expectations of the year before by retaining the Super Rugby title. The competition is long and arduous and as the Reds found out last year, a few key injuries can really derail your campaign. The Chiefs have a great coach in Dave Rennie who knows how to get the best out of his squad. What is most impressive is that the Chiefs once depended on their backline flair as their forwards were often outplayed and they weren’t able to provide the backs with front-foot ball. Now, they have some of the hardest and industrious forwards in the game (Liam Messam, Craig Clarke), which sets the platform for the backs to play freely and on instinct.
The team from Hamilton are full of game breakers and seasoned All Blacks, however, I think the loss of Sonny Bill Williams will be felt more than most expect. Although the return from injury of Richard Kahui might offset this, SBW will be missed in this team and in rugby in general, as he drew crowds using his natural ability to just make things happen. I have no doubts that they will make the playoffs, but something tells me they might just slip at one of the two final hurdles.
Key Players Gained: Charlie Ngatai (Centre)
Key Players Lost: Sonny Bill Williams (Centre)
Superstars: Liam Messam (Flanker), Aaron Cruden (Flyhalf), Richard Kahui (Centre)
Rising Stars: Sam Cane (Flanker), Ben Tameifuna (Prop)
Prediction: The Chiefs won’t be far off winning their conference ($3.25 – Sportsbet), but repeating the achievements of last year seems like a tough ask.
Team Base: Christchurch, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Rugby League Park
Coach: Todd Blackadder
Captains: Kieran Read (Number 8)
Over the years, the Crusaders have been both the most successful and most consistent team in the competition. With a team that has multiple All Blacks at their disposal week in and week out, it hasn’t been a surprise. The ‘golden era’ between 2002-2008 yielded four trophies in seven years, however, pressure is firmly on them having not won a title since then. Is it a case of ageing All Blacks not at their best, untimely injuries or other teams just bridging the gap? There are many questions to be answered this year and with a weaker squad and Richie McCaw’s six-month sabbatical, players like Kieran Read and Dan Carter will have to find another level (is that possible?).
Put simply, you have to respect this team. They have gone through adversity in recent years with the Christchurch earthquake and the city relies heavily on their seven-time champion team. With a number of promising youngsters coming through their ranks and a large portion of seasoned All Black’s, the Crusaders will feature in 2013, but the days of automatically predicting them to win every week are gone. Could the crusade be over?
Key Players Gained: Dominic Bird (Lock), Jordan Taufua (Number 8)
Key Players Lost: Ben Franks (Prop), Zac Guildford (Wing), Sean Maitland (Wing)
Superstars: Richie Mccaw (Flanker), Kieran Read (Number 8), Dan Carter (Flyhalf), Israel Dagg (Fullback)
Rising Stars: Johnny McNicholl (Wing), Dominic Bird (Lock), Jordan Taufua (Number 8)
Prediction: I expect the Crusaders experience to shine through when it matters and make the playoffs, although they probably won’t win their conference and will finish second.
Team Base: Dunedin, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Coach: Jamie Joseph
Captains: Jamie Mackintosh (Prop)
The Highlanders have a better chance than ever to play finals footy in 2013. Not since 2002, have the Highlanders produced steady performances. The Highlanders are notoriously good starters having been positioned in 5th and 4th at the midway point in the last two years. However, as the season dragged on and injuries ruined gelled combinations, their depth was tested and they managed to fade. This is, without doubt the strongest team from the Otago region since the evolution of the competition. With eleven All Black’s to call upon, the inclusion of Tony Woodcock to bolster the front row, Brad Thorn to replace Adam Thomson’s grunt and Ma’a Nonu to carve up other backlines, things are looking positive in Dunedin.
Traditionally, the Highlanders have had to adapt to often miserable conditions in Dunedin and Invercargill and play ten-man rugby. However, since they have moved to the spectacular closed-roof stadium built for the world cup, their strong skillsets are more evident and their first-choice backline is potent. Injuries permitting, I predict the Highlanders to be the big improvers of 2013. Under the roof at Forsyth Barr, they will look to win their matches and pick up a few more on the road as they are traditionally, a pretty good touring team.
If it weren’t for the strong competition within their conference, I would easily put the Highlanders in the top six. They will play an entertaining brand of rugby and their first choice 15 will be able to match it with the best, but how often do teams get to play with their best 15 on the park.
Key Players Gained: Tony Woodcock (Prop), Brad Thorn (Lock), Ma’a Nonu (Centre)
Key Players Lost: James Haskell (Flanker), Adam Thomson (Flanker), Jimmy Cowan (Halfback)
Superstars: Andrew Hore (Hooker), Aaron Smith (Halfback) Ma’a Nonu (Centre), Hosea Gear (Wing)
Rising Stars: Liam Coltman (Hooker), Jason Emery (Centre)
Prediction: There is a lot of expectation on the Highlanders given their offseason acquisitions. Their best fifteen has what it takes, but the season is long and they will fade towards the end and finish third in their conference. They might just sneak the final playoff spot though.
Team Base: Wellington, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Westpac Stadium
Coach: Mark Hammett
Captains: Conrad Smith (Centre)
The Hurricanes have always played one of the most attractive brands of rugby with half of famers Lomu, Cullen, Umaga and in more recent times, Jane, Savea and Taylor. They combine blistering pace with raw power and a deadly eye for the try line. From a team point of view, their attacking prowess is very rarely equalled by their defence, which really limits how far they can go. There is no where to hide in Super Rugby and with the level of analysis each player and team receives, your weaknesses are sure to be found out.
At the end of the 2011 season when their was an exodus of players including Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu and Andrew Hore to name a few, expectations were low around Wellington as to how well their team would and could perform. But to their credit, they performed admirably, sinking the Sharks, Crusaders and eventual champions the Chiefs along the way and finished the season with 5 wins from the last 8 games.
The Hurricanes have received a huge blow before the season has even started losing Cory Jane for the year to a dreaded ACL tear. You can never count the Hurricanes out because they have the ability to turn a match on it’s head, however, you’ll get more entertainment value from them this year than any hope of them finishing in the top six.
Key Players Gained: Ben Franks (Prop), Ardie Savea (Flanker)
Key Players Lost: Jayden Hayward (Centre), Charlie Ngatai (Centre, Wing)
Superstars: Victor Vito (Number 8), Conrad Smith (Centre), Julian Savea (Wing)
Rising Stars: Andre Taylor (Wing, Fullback), Beauden Barrett
Prediction: I expect the Hurricanes to beat the Blues in the New Zealand conference and cause a few upsets along the way, but they are still rebuilding and are a few years away from a playoff birth.
Team Base: Canberra, Australia
Home Stadium: Canberra Stadium
Coach: Jake White
Captain: Ben Mowen (Number 8, Flanker)
The Brumbies faithful have waited almost ten years for their team to return to the top echelon of Super Rugby and after last year’s performance, they might not have to wait too much longer. Led by super coach, Jake White, the Brumbies will begin their 2013 campaign seeking vengeance against the Queensland Reds, who pipped them at the post during the final round of last year’s competition. But no one really expected them to get that far in 2012. The Brumbies surprised most pundits and produced results that were a couple years ahead of schedule.
Jake White, alongside Stephen Larkham and Laurie Fisher, have implemented some new structures that play to their roster’s strength. Their results come on the back of hard work as they only take four weeks off in between seasons. This allows their combinations to develop, camaraderie to build and unity to form. Having lost the services of outstanding flanker, Michael Hooper for 2012, the Brumbies recruited arguably the best number seven in world rugby, David Pocock. His grit, dedication and his immense strength are second to none. He is almost immovable once he locks in on a tackled player leading to turnover after turnover. Having played with him at school, I cannot speak highly enough of David and I expect him to get even better under the tutelage of Jake White and co. 2013 also sees the return of the long-lost Clyde Rathbone who retired many years ago as a result of injuries and other personal issues. His form in the trials has been solid, but I can’t see him regularly cracking the starting fifteen.
With an all Wallaby front three, a second row with a mix of athleticism and enforcers and a traditionally strong back row, the seasoned forwards will once again lay the platform for some their exciting youngsters to shine. Despite a long term injury to the tough as nails Pat McCabe, there is enough depth to capitalise on the go forward ball. I have high expectations for the Brumbies this year and there is no better way to start the completion than three home games. It will be clear early on if they have managed to hold onto the momentum generated from last year, but a suitable balance of youth and experience should help them make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Key Players Gained: David Pocock (Flanker), Clyde Rathbone (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Michael Hooper (Flanker)
Superstars: Stephen Moore (Hooker), David Pocock (Flanker), Christian Lealifano (Flyhalf, Inside Centre)
Rising Stars: Jessie Mogg (Wing/Fullback), Joseph Tomane (Wing)
Prediction: The Brumbies have an impressive young squad and I expect them to make the playoffs this year and go one better by winning the Australia conference ($3.30 – Sportsbet).
Team Base: Perth, Australia
Home Stadium: NIB Stadium
Coach: Michael Foley
Captain: Matt Hodgson (Flanker)
Along with the Southern Kings, I can’t see the Western Force exciting or causing any major upsets in 2013. Along with losing their two key leaders in David Pocock (Brumbies) and Nathan Sharpe to retirement, the Force have brought in Michael Foley who was highly ineffective with the Waratahs last year. The Force’s biggest issue having also lost James O’Connor at the end of season 2011, is that they have extreme difficulty in attracting any big name players. They have managed to add former Wallaby, Hugh McMeniman, Kiwi’s Alby Mathewson and Jayden Hayward, and Sias Ebersohn to their roster, all players who are good but won’t go onto or return to higher honours.
Their strength has been their back row with Ben McCalman, Richard Brown and new captain, Matt Hodgson, although their backline leaves little to be desired at this level and will be surely found out in such a dangerous competition. The Force only managed to win five games last year and they will be lucky to repeat that feat in 2013. The competition is gruelling and the blue army, some of the most devoted fans in the competition, might seriously consider their membership reuptake for future seasons.
Key Players Gained: High McMeniman (Flanker, Lock), Alby Mathewson (Scrumhalf), Jayden Hayward (Centre)
Key Players Lost: Nathan Sharpe (Lock), David Pocock (Flanker)
Superstars: Matt Hodgson (Flanker), Pat Mccabe (Utility Back), Nick Cummins (Wing)
Rising Stars: Kyle Godwin (Flyhalf)
Prediction: The Force WILL finish last in the Australian competition and their match against the Southern Kings in round 2 could be key to deciding the wooden spoon.
Team Base: Melbourne, Australia
Home Stadium: AAMI Park
Coach: Damian Hill
Captain: Gareth Delve (Number 8)
Heading into the new season, the Rebels have now won 7 games in total and relinquish the newcomers tag. The Melbourne-based team won three games in 2011 and bettered that by one last year. The talk of the town after the off-season spring clean has been the acquisition of Scott Higginbotham, a rampaging back rower who has led the Queensland Reds in key statistics for the last few seasons (carries, lineout takes and line breaks). It must be noted that a wealth of experience has been lost with the departure of a whole team of players including, foundation member Stirling Mortlock, Mark Gerrard and Danny Cipriani to name a few. The loss of this experience could play a key role in tough situations throughout the season, but the Rebels will be banking on their big names like Kurtley Beale, Welshman and captain Gareth Delve, and James O’Connor to star and remain injury free.
The Rebels have always been blessed with a quick and skilful backline, however, they have been undermined by their grunt and size upfront and against the more scrum savvy teams of South Africa and New Zealand, they could be in for a long season. They are a team that play an expansive and entertaining game, but if the hard work isn’t done upfront, their backline stars might not get the ball they require to make inroads in defences.
Super Rugby has been known to produce some cracking matches and even bigger upsets, including the Crusader’s demise to the Rebels in Melbourne last year. Unfortunately, these games are few and far between and although they may spring a few surprises this year, the Rebels don’t have the depth or the strength in key positions to be a real threat to the rest of their conference, let alone the majority of their African and New Zealand counterparts.
Key Players Gained: Scott Higginbotham (Flanker, Number 8)
Key Players Lost: Danny Cipriani (Flyhalf), Stirling Mortlock (Centre), Mark Gerrard (Utility Back)
Superstars: Scott Higginbotham (Flanker, Number 8), James O’Connor (Utility Back), Kurtley Beale (Flyhalf, Fullback)
Rising Stars: Paul Alo-Emile (Prop)
Prediction: The Rebels will finish 4th in the Australian Conference.
Team Base: Brisbane, Australia
Home Stadium: Suncorp Stadium
Coach: Richard Graham
Captain: James Horwill (Lock)
The Queensland Reds have been the form team of the Australian conference for the last few years calling on a great coaching structure, numerous seasoned Wallabies and a development program that produces future superstars year after year. As a result of their successes in recent seasons, they have had to release a number of players while only bringing in Jono Owen to comply with salary cap restrictions. The Reds have implemented a new coaching structure with former Force coach Richard Graham now head coach, and former coach Ewen Mckenzie instilled as the Director of Coaching. With reports of Ewen Mackenzie wanting to challenge Robbie Deans for the Wallabies position in future, is Richard Graham the right man for the job? Time will tell.
What the Reds are blessed with is an abundance of talented youngsters who have played their rugby together for many years. With names like James Horwill, Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Digby Ioane, they are a tight-knit group and thrive in the fortress known as Suncorp Stadium. It is questionable whether James Horwill will be fit in time for their important round one clash with the Brumbies in Canberra, but what we do know is that we won’t be entertained by Will Genia’s magic until the latter half of March as he returns from a serious knee injury. If there are any ‘weak links’ in the Reds, you could say that their front row needs more depth and their back row needs more game time. The loss of Scott Higginbotham here is sure to be felt.
For the Red’s fans, I am hoping that this year isn’t a case of deja vu as any injuries to key players will be felt given their lack of experienced depth. Time after time they have surprised us all with their enterprising play and ability to grind out the close matches. I expect the Reds to be in the top half of the table despite their horrible draw (away matches against Chiefs, Stormers and Highlanders) and they face important games against the Brumbies and the Waratahs in the first two rounds.
Key Players Gained: Jono Owen (Prop)
Key Players Lost: Scott Higginbotham (Flanker, Number 8)
Superstars: James Horwill (Lock), Will Genia (Scrumhalf), Quade Cooper (Flyhalf), Digby Ioane (Wing)
Rising Stars: Liam Gill (Flanker), Chris Feauai-Sautia (Wing)
Prediction: If the Reds remain relatively injury free, they will win or come second in the Australian conference. It will be a big ask for them to win overall considering they probably won’t be playing at home when it matters.
Team Base: Sydney, Australia
Home Stadium: Allianz Stadium
Coach: Michael Cheika
Captain: Dave Dennis (Flanker, Lock)
2013 will be a rebuilding year for New South Wales rugby given their offseason clean out at both, player and management level. The 2012 season was their worst in six years and poor attendance levels and membership uptake were a result of the strange decisions and performances of coaches and players alike. Australian rugby needs the Waratahs to fire and the gain of Michael Cheika, a former Australian player and Heineken Cup winning coach, is very much a step in the right direction. His key role is to stem the exodus of current players and to get everyone on the same page and doing what they have done in the past, playing winning rugby.
The Waratahs have always had a strong squad, but more often than not the results haven’t gone their way. Their key players, Palu, Polota-Nau, Barnes and Horne have all had very limited game time and very rarely see the season out. If these players manage to spend some time on the field, it will go a long way to deciding the fate of the Waratah’s season.
Despite losing a few players in the offseason, the Waratahs have recruited well by acquiring exciting wingers Peter Betham and triple-code hopper, Israel Folau. Folau has featured heavily in the Waratah’s trials and even though he has given away some silly penalties as a result of not knowing the rules, his ability to beat defenders is something they will need week in and week out. The most important signing sees Michael Hooper, one of the most exciting youngsters in the game make the trek north from Canberra. Seen as a future leader, his stocks will continue to rise throughout his time at the Waratahs.
As aforementioned, this is still a rebuilding year and although they will see more fans through the turnstiles this year, I don’t expect them to make the playoffs.
Key Players Gained: Michael Hooper (Flanker), Israel Folau (Wing, Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Dean Mumm (Lock), Dan Vickerman (Lock), Sarel Pretorius (Halfback)
Superstars: Tatafu Polota Nau (Hooker), Michael Hooper (Flanker), Berrick Barnes (Flyhalf, Centre), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Utility Back)
Rising Stars: Israel Folau (Wing, Fullback), Peter Betham (Wing)
Prediction: The Waratahs should finish third in the Australian conference.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Team Base: Pretoria, South Africa
Home Stadium: Loftus Versfeld
Coach: Frans Ludeke
Captain: Pierre Spies (Number 8)
Hailing from Pretoria, the Blue Bulls have been one of the most intimidating and successful teams in the modern era. Despite losing what felt like an entire team of seasoned Springboks after the RWC in 2011, the Bulls conveyor belt of brutal, hard-running forwards keeps producing and they certainly breed them tough on the Highveld. Despite losing a few players in the offseason, they have managed to draw a few promising youngsters from the Lions as well as rugby’s ‘prince charming’ Wynand Olivier (or so he thinks) returning to the fray.
Pierre Spies, the man put in charge of rebuilding this successful franchise has never really found the form that he once displayed when he broke onto the international scene as a youngster. He is athletic and built like a bodybuilder, but he seems to go missing when his fellow forwards are going backwards. Francois Hougaard remains an exceptional talent and I think he will partner well with Handre Pollard, another youngster, when Morne Steyn takes up his European contract later in the year.
The Bulls use their base at altitude as an advantage and teams never enjoy going there, but it isn’t the fortress of old. I predict they will come third behind the Stormers and the Sharks, but they will be more than entertaining along the way and will pick up a number of bonus points for scoring four tries or more.
Key Players Gained: Marcel van der Merwe (Prop), Paul Willemse (Lock), Wynand Olivier (Centre)
Key Players Lost: CJ Stander
Superstars: Pierre Spies (Number 8), Francois Hougaard (Halfback, Wing)
Rising Stars: Paul Willemse (Lock)
Prediction: The Bulls should finish mid table in their division and in a similar position overall.
Free State Cheetahs
Team Base: Bloemfontein, South Africa
Home Stadium: Free State Stadium
Coach: Naka Drotske
Captain: Adriaan Strauss
Year after year, the Cheetahs are one of the most exciting teams to watch in Super Rugby, despite never being able to fill their home stadium. They have scored some exceptional tries in recent years and are often involved in high-scoring matches. Unfortunately, they may be great on attack, but high scores means weak defence. The teams that regularly feature at the top of the table usually concede fewer tries and fewer kickable penalties than the ones that don’t. Their team ethos is built around courage, heart and pride in their province, which makes them so much more exciting to watch.
They always occupy a spot in the bottom half of the points table, however, last year they managed to equal their franchise record of 5 Super Rugby wins. What was more impressive is that they could’ve easily won more games if it wasn’t for some dubious referee decisions and brief mental lapses. A particular match against the Brumbies in Canberra comes to mind.
The Cheetahs have a number of youngsters coming through the ranks who could quite possibly go onto becoming regular Springboks, but the return from a two-year achilles injury to Juan Smith will surely bolster an already strong and mobile forward pack. Sarel Pretorius also returns from a failed stint with the Waratahs so there is a lot to be excited about in Bloemfontein. They might pick up a few more victories this year and still manage to play an entertaining brand of rugby, but there is just too much class in the South African conference to think they could be serious contenders.
Players Gained: Sarel Pretorius (Halfback)
Players Lost: Ashley Johnson (Flanker), WP Nel (Prop)
Superstars: Coenie Oosthuizen (Prop), Adriaan Strauss (Hooker), Heinrich Brussouw (Flanker)
Rising Stars: Johan Goosen (Flyhalf)
Prediction: The Cheetahs will finish fourth despite blowing the Kings off the park in both fixtures.
Eastern Province Kings
Team Base: Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Home Stadium: Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
Coach: Matt Sexton
Captain: Luke Watson (Flanker, Number 8)
Easily the most controversial team to get drafted into Super Rugby, the Eastern Province Kings are going to be in for a rude awakening. Politics aside, Super Rugby is the toughest, most testing provincial rugby competition in the world, with nowhere to hide. Very rarely do first year teams play consistently and spring surprises and I don’t see this year being any different. In their inaugural season, the Western Force managed to win one game and this would be a good benchmark for the Kings. They sit in a densely competitive conference and their Australian and New Zealand rivals will pencil games against them as a must-win.
The Kings have a few classy players in Tomas Leonardi and Nicholas Vergallo, both of whom are Argentinian internationals. New Zealander, Hadleigh Parkes and the inspirational Kings skipper, Luke Watson, will shed some positive light on their campaign, but their depth will be significantly tested, given that they already have a number of first choice players unavailable to injury. Whether the Kings remain in the competition post-2013 is yet to be known, however, I can’t see their results putting up a good argument for their continued inclusion. I can’t see them winning any matches and I can’t see them winning their two-leg relegation matches against the Lions later this year.
Players Gained: Tomas Leonardi (Flanker), Nicholas Vergallo (Halfback), Hadleigh Parkes (Centre, Wing)
Players Lost: N/A
Superstars: Luke Watson (Flanker, Number 8)
Rising Stars: Bandise Maku (Hooker)
Prediction: It is going to be a long and painful season for the Kings and they will fail to win any matches.
Team Base: Durban, South Africa
Home Stadium: Kings Park
Coach: John Plumtree
Captain: Keegan Daniel (Number 8, Flanker)
The Sharks surprised a lot of pundits in 2012, firstly by finishing sixth and then managing to knock off the Reds in Brisbane, the Stormers in Cape Town and then got blown off the park against the eventual champions, the Chiefs in Hamilton. The travel factor played a huge part in their defeat but at the end of the day they were beaten by a much more clinical and deserving team in the final.
The Sharks will bring even more confidence into this season as the Super Rugby administrators have provided them with a draw that they would be more than happy with. Although they have to play the Chiefs, Highlanders and Reds away, they will only embark on their overseas trip midseason once they have had time to acclimatise to the competition and are battle hardened.
With names like the du Plessis brothers, Tendai Mtwawira (the beast), Willem Alberts, Patrick Lambie, and J.P Pietersen in their squad, they have to be considered highly to feature strongly at the pointy end of the season. Although they will be without inspirational skipper Keegan Daniel and Bismarck du Plessis for the first few rounds, they can once again call on one of my favourite players, Francois Steyn to provide some stern midfield defence and raking kicks as he returns from money tree that is France.
I expect them to reach similar heights this year and they won’t have a better opportunity to do so. Their coach John Plumtree will keep them grounded and with such a talented squad they will be involved in some exciting games so remember to tune in. Oh, their cheerleaders aren’t too bad either.
Key Players Lost: Frederic Michalak (Toulon), Steven Sykes (Southern Kings).
Key Players Gained: Butch James (Lions), Franco van der Merwe (Lions), Francois Steyn (Centre, Fullback).
Superstars: Tendai Mtawawira (Prop), Bismarck du Plessis (Hooker), Patrick Lambie (Flyhalf), JP Pieterson (Wing)
Rising Stars: Pieter-Steph du Toit (Lock, Flanker), Paul Jordaan (Centre, Wing)
Prediction: It is hard to split the Sharks and the Stormers at this stage, but I think they might find it hard to crack the Stormers defence.
Western Province Stormers
Team Base: Capetown, South Africa
Home Stadium: Newlands
Coach: Allister Coetzee
Captain: Schalk Burger (Flanker)
The Stormers were without doubt the best team at the end of the regular season in 2012 and most will expect them to be title contenders again this year. They base their game on an impeccable defensive structure that rarely lets in a try, only conceding 21 tries in 18 games last year. Despite pressuring teams with an impenetrable blue wall, they do not cross the try line themselves enough to really put teams away. In fact, last year they went the whole tournament without getting a four-try bonus point, only done once before in Super Rugby by the Force.
When you look at their team sheet, it is hard to find a weak link, with grunt and mobility up front, towering locks and an imposing back row. Schalk Burger returns after a long layoff and world rugby will be better off as he plays the game with utter disrespect to his body. Throw in Jean de Villiers, and the rejuvenated Bryan Habana and things are looking good for the men from the Cape. Furthermore, adding recently capped Springboks, Elton Janjies, Jaco Taute and Pat Cilliers to the mix will surely pose more threats to opposition defences and provide added depth when injuries surface.
There is no such thing as an easy match at Super Rugby level (discounting the Kings) and the Stormers draw isn’t ideal. However, they have a cluster of home matches, especially after a tough tour away and they will be able to consolidate and build towards the final stretch in front of their home fans. Other Super Rugby sides love traveling to Cape Town, but they know once the run onto the pitch at Newlands they are in for a tough day at the office. This year will be no different and the Stormers should finish on top of the South African conference and in the top two overall.
Key Players Lost: Nick Koster (Flanker)
Key Players Gained: Pat Cilliers (Prop), Elton Janjies (Flyhalf), Jaco Taute (Fullback, Centre)
Superstars: Eben Etzebeth (Lock), Schalk Burger (Flanker), Jean de Villiers (Centre), Bryan Habana (Wing)
Rising Stars: Steven Kitshoff (Prop), Jaco Taute (Fullback, Centre)
Prediction: The Stormers should win their conference and won’t have a better opportunity to better last year, where they tripped over the penultimate hurdle (regular season outright at $6.00 – Sportsbet).