The long, painstaking wait of the southern hemisphere rugby offseason is almost over with the 2014 Investec Super Rugby season beginning this weekend with two matches coming live to us from South Africa. As The Profits resident rugby union writer, I will provide you with my thoughts, analysis and betting predictions each week. Over the next six months, the biggest, fastest, most skilful and exciting rugby players on the planet will compete for glory in what is arguably the toughest and most competitive provincial rugby competition. 125 matches totalling 10,000 minutes of bone crunching hits, breathtaking tries, sublime skillsets and more often than not enthralling rugby awaits, so sit back, relax and enjoy the season. If they say that football is the game that is played in heaven, than rugby union is the game they play on earth. All conferences will be intense with some historical and fierce battles, but the teams that have the most depth and fewest injuries generally prevail. I made mention of this last year, but it is a telling statistic: 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. Make sure you follow me on Twitter (@S15_TheProfits) for last minute tips, game coverage, expert insight or just for a chat and I can’t wait for things to kick off this weekend!
New Zealand: Crusaders, Chiefs, Blues, Hurricanes, Highlanders
Australia: Waratahs, Reds, Brumbies, Force, Rebels
South African: Sharks, Stormers, Cheetahs, Bulls, Lions
Best Bet 1: New Zealand Conference Winner – Crusaders @ $2.50 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 2: South African Conference Winner – Sharks @ $2.40 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 3: Most Losses – Lions @ $2.30 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 4: Rebels regular season wins – Under 5.5 @ $1.75 – Sportsbet
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Canterbury Crusaders (1st)
Team Base: Christchurch, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Rugby League Park
Coach: Todd Blackadder
Captain: Kieran Read (Number 8)
Key Players Gained: Colin Slade (Utility Back), Rey Lee-Lo (Centre), Nemani Nadolo (Wing/Centre)
Key Players Lost: Tom Donnelly (Lock), Robbie Fruean (Centre), Tom Marshall (Utility Back)
Superstars: Richie McCaw (Flanker), Kieran Read (Number 8), Dan Carter (Flyhalf), Israel Dagg (Fullback)
Rising Stars: Dominic Bird (Lock), Nemani Nadolo (Wing/Centre)
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 come as a huge 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 closing the gap? There are many questions to be answered this year and the developmental systems of Canterbury rugby will once again be on show. Dan Carter has been granted a six-month sabbatical by the NZRU, so players like Colin Slade or Tyler Bleyendaal will have to step up.
Put simply, you have to respect this team. They have gone through adversity in recent years, however, they still remain the most consistent Super Rugby team of all time. Should the Crusaders fail to recapture some silverware this year, I think coach Todd Blackadder’s days will be numbered, however, with a number of promising youngsters coming through their ranks and a large portion of seasoned All Blacks still at their disposal, this may be the year where another great crusade begins.
Prediction: I expect the Crusaders experience to shine through when it matters most and in turn, make the playoffs, on the back of a conference win over the reigning champions, the Chiefs.
Waikato Chiefs (2nd)
Team Base: Hamilton, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Waikato Stadium
Coach: Dave Rennie
Captains: Liam Messam (Flanker) & Aaron Cruden (Fly half)
Key Players Gained: Jamie Mackintosh (Prop), Robbie Fruean (Centre), Mils Muliaina (Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Toby Smith (Prop), Craig Clarke (Lock), Fritz Lee (Number 8), Richard Kahui (Centre), Lelia Masaga (Wing)
Superstars: Liam Messam (Flanker), Sam Cane (Flanker), Aaron Cruden (Flyhalf)
Rising Stars: Liam Squire (Flanker), James Lowe (Wing)
Since the inception of this competition in 1996, only 3 teams (Blues, Crusaders and Bulls on five occasions) have managed to match the levels of adulation and expectations of the year before by retaining the Super Rugby title. Last year, the Chiefs became the fourth and after losing a number of their stalwarts in the offseason, some are saying that the win against the Brumbies in Hamilton may well be the end of the Chiefs fairly tale run. However, Chiefs coach Dave Rennie is establishing himself as one of he best in the business and is due for higher honours, perhaps after the culmination of the next Rugby World Cup. Rennie and his fellow management team have helped transform a team that was once extremely entertaining, but very inconsistent into provincial world-beaters with a forward pack that can match it with the best and backs that can run riot and easily expose any defensive frailties. The loss of co-captain Craig Clarke, Toby Smith and Fritz Lee will without a doubt be felt in the engine room up front, however, with Richard Kahui and Lelia Masaga now playing abroad, the signings of Robbie Fruean and the 100-test veteran, Mils Muliaina couldn’t have been more timely.
The team from Hamilton are full of game breakers and a mix of seasoned and developing All Blacks, however, only the Crusaders have ever achieved the three-peat (1998 – 2000) and I think that might be a bridge too far for this Chiefs outfit. Had they maintained a similar squad to last year, it would be hard not to back them, however, the target on their backs will be even bigger this year. I expect them to make the playoffs and cause a lot of teams grief over the course of the season, but I’m fairly confident that 2014 will see a changing of the guard.
Prediction: The Chiefs should make the playoffs in 2014, but repeating the achievements of the last two years seems like a tall order.
Auckland Blues (3rd)
Team Base: Auckland, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Eden Park
Coach: John Kirwan
Captain: Luke Braid (Flanker)
Key Players Gained: Tony Woodcock (Prop), Tom Donnelly (Lock), Jerome Kaino (Flanker), Ma’a Nonu (Centre), Benji Marshall (Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Anthony Boric (Lock), Ali Williams (Lock), Rene Ranger (Centre/Wing)
Superstars: Jerome Kaino (Flanker), Steven Luatua (Flanker), Ma’a Nonu (Centre), Charles Piutau (Fullback)
Rising Stars: Frank Halai (Wing), Benji Marshall (Fullback)
When you look back at the history of New Zealand teams (in the Super 12 especially), two teams standout: the Blues and the Crusaders. With the injection of additional funding and the expanding nature of the game, Super Rugby has evolved and unlike the Crusaders, the Blues didn’t. As was the case with many other clubs, 2011 saw the exodus of a number of players who had timed their swansongs to perfection. Since then, the Blues franchise has undergone a radical change, by bringing in new coaches, new players and a new attitude, and if the 2013 season was anything to go by, the future for Auckland rugby looks bright. Players like Frank Halai, Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua have begun to cement their places in the All Black setup and a number of other youngsters aren’t far behind. Additionally, a number of the games biggest names including Tony Woodcock, Ma’a Nonu and Jerome Kaino have returned to Auckland to re-establish themselves in New Zealand rugby. There has been a lot of hype about the crossover of Benji Marshall from the Wests Tigers in the NRL in Australia, however, I wouldn’t expect an Israel Folau or Sonny-Bill Williams-like transition just yet as he has a lot to learn. He will no-doubt build confidence in his game with the plethora of test match players that surround him, but I can’t see his name on an All Blacks team sheet with the quality of seasoned campaigners that already exist.
John Kirwan now has a year under his belt and his work and relationship with super-coach Graham Henry will continue to reap rewards for a club with such a proud history. I don’t see the Blues as a title contender in 2014, but I expect them to continue to grow, develop and potentially be a team that wins at least one championship trophy before the decade is out.
Prediction: The Blues should finish third in the New Zealand conference and occupying a spot just outside the playoff picture once the regular season concludes.
Wellington Hurricanes (4th)
Team Base: Wellington, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Westpac Stadium
Coach: Mark Hammett
Captains: Conrad Smith (Centre)
Key Players Gained: Marty Banks (Flyhalf), Hadleigh Parkes (Utility Back)
Key Players Lost: Ben May (Prop), Jason Eaton (Lock), Karl Lowe (Flanker)
Superstars: Victor Vito (Number 8), Beauden Barrett (Flyhalf), Conrad Smith (Centre), Julian Savea (Wing)
Rising Stars: Ardie Savea (Flanker), Brad Shields (Flanker)
I made mention of this last year and it is still pertinent: the Hurricanes have always played one of the most attractive brands of rugby with hall of famers Lomu, Cullen, Umaga and in more recent times, Jane, Savea and Taylor. They combine blistering pace with raw power and have a deadly eye for the try line. However, a balance is crucial and this is something that let seems to let the Hurricanes down year after year. Last year they conceded more points than 11 other teams and chasing the scoreboard is not something you can make a habit of if you want to be successful in this competition.
Although the Hurricanes have manufactured some fantastic wins after the exodus of players post-Rugby World Cup 2011, they have never displayed the composure, consistency or class to regularly threaten for a playoff birth. There has been a lot of activity in the transfer window this year, but very few players have been acquired by the Wellington-based franchise and I think this is where coach Mark Hammett may have missed a trick. The majority of teams have a range of international stars to choose from and the Hurricanes are no different, but injuries will occur and depth will be tested and this is where I see the Hurricanes being undone. Don’t get me wrong, the Hurricanes will once again be one of the most exciting teams to watch with a number of excellent individuals and you can never count them or the Wellington weather out, however, the squad don’t have the ingredients to cause too much of a bluster up north on the competition ladder.
Prediction: I expect the Hurricanes to finish ahead of the Highlanders in the New Zealand conference and cause a few upsets along the way, but they are still rebuilding and are a few years and a couple big name signings away from a playoff birth.
Otago Highlanders (5th)
Team Base: Dunedin, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Coach: Jamie Joseph
Captains: Nasi Manu (Number 8) & Ben Smith (Wing)
Key Players Gained: Matias Diaz (Prop), Shane Christie (Flanker), Patrick Osborne (Wing), Kurt Baker (Utility Back)
Key Players Lost: Jamie Mackintosh (Prop), Tony Woodcock (Prop), Andrew Hore (Hooker), Colin Slade (Utility Back), Tamati Ellison (Centre), Ma’a Nonu (Centre), Hosea Gear (Wing)
Superstars: Brad Thorn (Lock), Aaron Smith (Halfback), Ben Smith (Wing) Rising Stars: Liam Coltman (Hooker), Patrick Osborne (Wing)
The Highlanders had their worst year in franchise history in 2013, finishing at the bottom of the New Zealand conference and second last in the competition, only ahead of ‘one-time wonders’, the Southern Kings due to a few extra bonus points. This time last year, there were tribes of fans singing their praises with expectations that 2013 was going to be their best season since 2002, however, they couldn’t have been more wrong (myself included). The Highlanders had all the ingredients for a winning season, however, their off-season acquisitions were as much a let down as last year’s Super Rugby final. However, out with the old and in with the new, the Highlanders will use this season to rebuild having lost a number of their experienced heads: Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Tamati Ellison and Ma’a Nonu, just to name a few.
Traditionally, the Highlanders have had to adapt to often-miserable conditions in Dunedin and Invercargill and play ten-man rugby – something they are generally pretty good at. However, since they have moved to the spectacular closed-roof Forsyth Barr Stadium built for the Rugby World Cup in 2011, their skillsets, composure and game plans have been heavily scrutinised under the microscope and last year’s disharmony was evident for everyone to see.
Unfortunately for the Highlanders, 2014 doesn’t paint a pretty picture. They are positioned in the strongest conference of the tournament and the class and squad depth of the other provinces are going to painstakingly expose the gaping holes that currently exist within the Highlanders franchise. I would be surprised to see coach Jamie Joseph last the duration of the season, but I am confident that they will score some scintillating tries and give their home fans intermittent glimpses of hope.
Prediction: There is very little expectations of the Highlanders this season and rightly so. Their best 15 simply doesn’t have the firepower to mix it with the crème of the crop and they will be focussing on their matches against the Lions, Rebels and Force to secure elusive victories. I hope they prove me wrong, but one of the beauties of Super Rugby, depending on who you support, is that there is no where to hide and I expect Highlanders to finish last in their conference and in the bottom 4 of the competition.
NSW Waratahs (1st)
Team Base: Sydney, Australia
Home Stadium: Allianz Stadium
Coach: Michael Cheika
Captain: Dave Dennis (Flanker, Lock)
Key Players Gained: Nick Phipps (Halfback), Jono Lance (Centre), Kurtley Beale (Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Sitaleki Timani (Lock), Berrick Barnes (Centre), Drew Mitchell (Wing)
Superstars: Tatafu Polota-Nau (Hooker), Michael Hooper (Flanker), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Utility Back), Israel Folau (Fullback)
Rising Stars: Tala Grey (Flanker), Peter Betham (Wing)
2013 was a rebuilding year for the Waratahs, but for me, the Waratahs have an excellent chance to finish at the top of the Australian conference for the first time since the conference system was integrated into Super Rugby. A 50% winning record in 2013 doesn’t necessarily endorse my season prediction, however, the acquisition of Nick Phipps, Jono Lance and most importantly, Kurtley Beale bolster a backline that has often folded under pressure after a dominant forward platform has been laid. Coach Michael Cheika is a non-nonsense type of character and with membership numbers over the past few seasons hitting new lows, he will know nothing but a finals appearance will be accepted by their die-hard fans.
Offensively in 2013, the Waratahs scored the second highest number of tries, but they will be looking to tighten up their defence, as the old adage states, ‘defence wins championships’. Their forward pack is of international standard with names like Polota-Nau, Robinson, Wycliff Palu and Michael Hooper. The latter made the openside flanker jersey his own last year for the Wallabies, but he might have more of a fight on his hands with the return of David Pocock. The backline has a good mix of power, pace and X-factor and as long as Israel Folau stays fit, they should continue to pile on the five-pointers against most opposition. The Waratahs franchise has been in a lull in recent years, however, 2014 is a new chapter and they appear to be concocting something in Sydney that has the other Australian teams starting to take notice.
Prediction: The Waratahs could finish first in the Australian conference and return to the final series for the first time in a number of years.
Queensland Reds (2nd)
Team Base: Brisbane, Australia
Home Stadium: Suncorp Stadium
Coach: Richard Graham
Captain: James Horwill (Lock)
Key Players Gained: Lachie Turner (Wing/Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Radike Samo (Number 8), Digby Ioane (Wing), Luke Morahan (Wing)
Superstars: James Horwill (Lock), Will Genia (Scrumhalf), Quade Cooper (Flyhalf)
Rising Stars: Chris Feauai-Sautia (Wing), JJ Taulagi (Fullback)
The Queensland Reds have been the most consistent team in the Australian conference for the last few years calling on a great coaching structure, numerous seasoned Wallabies and a development program that unearths talent that is unparalleled in most other states in Australia. After working themselves into fifth place at the culmination of the regular season, the Reds travelled to Christchurch and were given a rugby lesson by the formidable Crusaders, in one of the most complete performances of the year. The off-season transfer window hasn’t been kind to Reds losing Wallabies Radike Samo, Digby Ioane and Luke Morahan, however, the acquisition of Lachie Turner from the Waratahs will insert an extra component of pace into an already speedy backline.
The promotion of Ewen McKenzie to the Wallabies job reiterated the fact why Richard Brown was made head coach last year. Whether he has the nous and respect to get the most out of his players like McKenzie does, remains to be seen, however, the leadership team at the Reds is strong and the majority of them also perform that role for their country. There are a number of youngsters coming through the Reds programme and they generally thrive playing with some of the world’s best. Any team that possesses names like Horwill, Gill, Genia and Cooper are going to take some stopping and I’ve experience first hand the influence that Reds fans have on their team at the fortress known as Suncorp Stadium. For the Red’s fans, I am hoping that injuries don’t derail their season, as they have done so in the past because their lack of experienced depth could well be tested. 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, however, keeping their players fit might well determine whether or not they make the playoffs this season.
Prediction: If the Reds remain relatively injury free, they could finish in the top two in the Australian conference, and maybe sneak out fifth or sixth spot overall, however, I can’t see them repeating the feats of 2011 when they won the competition, as they probably won’t be playing at home when it matters most.
ACT Brumbies (3rd)
Team Base: Canberra, Australia
Home Stadium: Canberra Stadium
Coach: Stephen Larkham
Captain: Ben Mowen (Number 8, Flanker)
Key Players Gained: Jack Whetton (Lock), Jarrad Butler (Number 8)
Key Players Lost: Dan Palmer (Prop), Peter Kimlin (Lock), George Smith (Flanker)
Superstars: Stephen Moore (Hooker), David Pocock (Flanker), Christian Leali’fano (Flyhalf, Inside Centre), Matt Toomua (Flyhalf, Inside Centre)
Rising Stars: Scott Sio (Prop), Tevita Kuridrani (Centre)
The Brumbies faithful have waited almost a decade for their team to return to the top echelon of Super Rugby and many believed that they could’ve prevented the Chiefs from going back to back after losing to them in the final in a one-sided affair. Led by super coach, Jake White and an excellent support cast of Laurie Fisher and Wallaby great, Stephen Larkham, the Brumbies of 2013 were a galvanized unit and had an exceptional season. After Jake White was overlooked for the Wallabies job, his quest to once again enter the International fray saw him head back to South Africa at the end of the season. Stephen Larkham has since been named as coach and it will be interesting to see how the Brumbies back up this year and whether they will tinker with their on-field and off-field strategies.
A huge bonus for the Brumbies is that the highly prolific and almost immovable David Pocock will return in week two after suffering a career-threatening knee injury last year and by all accounts, his preseason form suggests that he hasn’t skipped a beat. 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 of their exciting youngsters to shine. Despite yet another injury to the tough as nails Pat McCabe, there is enough depth to capitalise on the go forward ball that is generally presented to them. I have moderate expectations for the Brumbies this year, but backing up from the season before has traditionally been a tough ask. 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 could help them make the playoffs for the second time since 2004.
Prediction: The Brumbies have an impressive squad and I expect them to potentially make the playoffs this year, but their matches against the Reds and the Waratahs will determine how far they go.
Western Force (4th)
Team Base: Perth, Australia
Home Stadium: NIB Stadium
Coach: Michael Foley
Captain: Matt Hodgson (Flanker)
Key Players Gained: Wilhelm Steenkamp (Lock), Marcel Brache (Centre), Dane Haylett-Petty (Wing), Luke Morahan (Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Salesi Ma’afu (Prop), Richard Brown (Back row), Brett Sheehan (Halfback),
Superstars: Ben McCalman (Flanker/Number 8), Nick Cummins (Wing)
Rising Stars: Kyle Godwin (Flyhalf), Dane Haylett-Petty (Wing)
The Western Force have one of the most passionate fan bases in the competition and I say that because as a team, they have achieved very little success since their inception in 2005, yet they still keep coming back. The last four years have seen the Force finish in 13th, 12th, 14th, 13th place and I have the Force emulating those positions again this year. This year their squad has a very South African flavour by luring Wilhelm Steenkamp and Marcel Brache across the Indian Ocean. However, when you look at their squad as a whole, there are no real marquee players that they can build the club around. Gone are the days of having the likes of Matt Giteau, David Pocock and Drew Mitchell running out for the men in blue. In saying that, Kyle Godwin a former Zimbabwean and Australian schoolboy representative, had an exceptional debut season last year and if it wasn’t for an inopportune shoulder injury, he was due to don the green and gold for Australia on the spring tour.
Their strength has always been their back row with Ben McCalman, Chris Alcock (another South African) and captain Matt Hodgson who are dogged at the breakdown and in open play. I do also see the Force fielding a potent back three combination of Nick ‘the honey badger’ and interview-loving Cummins, new recruit and Aussie Sevens player, Luke Morahan and Dane Haylett-Petty, who has lit up the French Top 14 over the last couple seasons. The Force only managed to win four games last year and although they might increase that slightly in 2014, it appears that they will fight it out with the Melbourne Rebels for the Australian conference wooden spoon. 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.
Prediction: The Force will finish in the bottom two of the Australian conference and the home and away fixtures in round three and round eight against the Melbourne Rebels will most likely be their ‘grand final’.
Melbourne Rebels (5th)
Team Base: Melbourne, Australia
Home Stadium: AAMI Park
Coach: Tony McGahan
Captain: Scott Higginbotham (Number 8)
Key Players Gained: Toby Smith (Prop), Tamati Ellison (Centre), Telusa Veainu (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Nic Henderson (Prop), Gareth Delve (Number 8), Nick Phipps (Halfback), James O’Connor (Utility Back), Kurtley Beale (Fullback)
Superstars: Scott Higginbotham (Flanker, Number 8), Luke Burgess (Halfback), Tamati Ellison (Centre)
Rising Stars: Tom Kingston (Wing)
I will tell you upfront, 2014 is going to be a long and painful season for all Rebels fans either in Australia or abroad. Coupled with the loss of a number of big name players including captain Gareth Delve, Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor, Nick Phipps etc. and possessing the second worst defence of the competition in 2013, there doesn’t appear to be a lot to be positive about. However, in saying that, the Rebels have restructured their organisation and brought in ex-Wallabies assistant coach Tony McGahan to lead the team moving forwards. Having played under Tony McGahan at schoolboy level, I can assure you that he is a very, very stern coach that expects nothing but 100% commitment, the right attitude and consistent performances, both on and off the field. For that reason, I am not sure someone like James O’Connor would’ve lasted if he were allowed to stay in Melbourne this year. The three key players gained in the off-season transfer window will offer the Rebels some stability in key positions, however, the resources to make a championship run just don’t exist. Although the Rebels might cause the odd upset or two in front of their passionate army of fans, they won’t trouble the Waratahs, Reds or Brumbies too much, let alone some of the other superpowers from the South African and New Zealand conferences.
Prediction: The Rebels should finish last in the Australian Conference.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Natal Sharks (1st)
Team Base: Durban, South Africa
Home Stadium: Kings Park
Coach: Jake White
Captain: Bismarck du Plessis (Hooker)
Key Players Lost: Craig Burden (Hooker), Franco van der Merwe (Lock), Butch James (Flyhalf), Louis Ludik (Utility Back)
Key Players Gained: Lourens Adriaanse (Prop), SP Marais (Fullback)
Superstars: Tendai Mtawawira (Prop), Bismarck du Plessis (Hooker), Patrick Lambie (Flyhalf), Francois Steyn (Utility Back)
Rising Stars: Pieter-Steph du Toit (Lock, Flanker), Paul Jordaan (Centre, Wing)
After the highs of 2012 when the Sharks managed 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 in the finals, 2013 was extremely disappointing as they failed to yield a playoff birth. Rugby coaches often speak about the ‘one percenters’ – that is, being so clinical and determined in everything you do to achieve that extra edge. What better man could former South African captain and now Shark’s CEO, John Smit bring in other than Rugby World Cup winning super-coach Jake White. His pedigree and his influence would only be rivalled by Graham Henry in world rugby and his recent return from Australia, where he took the Brumbies to second place, has given the Durban-based team the direction and expertise needed to take their game to the next level.
With names like the du Plessis brothers, Tendai Mtwawira (the beast), Willem Alberts and Patrick Lambie in their squad, they have to be considered highly to feature strongly at the pointy end of the season. A player like Francois Steyn will only improve under Jake White’s tutelage, as was the case in 2007 when they teamed up to win a world cup together. I expect the ‘Shark Tank’ to prisoners this year and they should make the playoffs and providing the bounce of the ball goes their way in terms of injuries and general luck, they could very easily press on for higher honours as their stars are starting to align.
Prediction: It is hard to split the Sharks and the Stormers at this stage, but I think they have the depth, management and the firepower to crack the Stormers staunch defence and their overseas rivals.
Western Province Stormers (2nd)
Team Base: Cape Town, South Africa
Home Stadium: Newlands Stadium
Coach: Allister Coetzee
Captain: Schalk Burger (Flanker) & Jean de Villiers (Centre)
Key Players Lost: Deon Carstens (Prop), Andries Bekker (Lock), Bryan Habana (Wing), Joe Pietersen (Fullback)
Key Players Gained: Manuel Carizza (Lock), Demetri Catrakilis (Flyhalf)
Superstars: Eben Etzebeth (Lock), Schalk Burger (Flanker), Jean de Villiers (Centre)
Rising Stars: Jaco Taute (Fullback, Centre), Cheslin Kolbe (Wing)
After the franchise’s most successful season in 2012 and three successive seasons in the final series, the Stormers really failed to capitalise on their momentum in 2013 and as a result, they finished outside the top six. They are a team that possesses one of the best defensive systems in the competition, however, their attack has been lacklustre for a number of seasons and in the end has been their undoing. Two members of their exciting back three, Bryan Habana and Joe Pietersen have gone to milk the cash cows of Europe’s ‘greener pastures’, however, 2014 will see introduction of the new breed with players like Cheslin Kolbe, Scott van Breda and company out to make a name for themselves. Looking from the top-down, coach Alastair Coetzee is the most successful active coach in the South African conference with a win rate of just under 70%. He has a senior leadership team of seasoned international players like co-captains Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers and a home stadium that is one of the most daunting in the competition, where the Stormers won seven of their eight fixtures last year. Other Super Rugby teams 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.
When you look at the composition of the squad, it is hard to find a weak link, with grunt and mobility up front, towering locks and an imposing back row. The acquisition of Argentinian forward Manuel Carizza is also a bonus. Although the backline will be missing the likes of the duo I mentioned above, I expect players like Damien de Allende and Gio Aplon to thrive with the added pressure and extra responsibility. Demetri Catrakilis, last year’s Kings kicking sensation, has also been brought in to help ignite the backline, an area in which the Stormers must improve if they want to be legitimate contenders.
Looking at their schedule, the Stormers will embark on a ‘tour from hell’ where they will have to face the Crusaders, Chiefs, Brumbies and Reds away, before returning home to play seven of their last 10 fixtures. The tough first-up tour might be enough to take the wind out of the Stormers sails this season, but they are a team that you can certainly never count out.
Prediction: I can’t see the Stormers claiming outright honours in the South African conference, although they are certainly playoff hopefuls, especially if they can keep their stars on the park.
Free State Cheetahs (3rd)
Team Base: Bloemfontein, South Africa
Home Stadium: Free State Stadium
Coach: Naka Drotske
Captain: Adriaan Strauss
Players Gained: Francois Venter (Centre), Cornal Hendricks (Wing)
Players Lost: Lourens Adriaanse (Prop), Piet van Zyl (Halfback), Robert Ebersohn (Centre)
Superstars: Adriaan Strauss (Hooker), Heinrich Brussow (Flanker)
Rising Stars: Johan Goosen (Flyhalf) Willie le Roux (Wing, Fullback)
Season after season, the Cheetahs are one of the most exciting teams to watch in Super Rugby, despite never being able to fill their home stadium. However, in the past excitement and entertainment hasn’t always translated into lucrative wins. In 2013, their fortunes changed and they were without a shadow of a doubt, the most impressive and improved team and often received a lot of airtime at office water coolers, both here and abroad. Their first finals birth (6th place) probably came a few seasons ahead of schedule, however, a demoralising 2-point loss to the Brumbies halted them from making the semi-finals. They quickly became fan favourites and a number of their stars received Springbok call-ups throughout the course of the year. Much like the Hurricanes, their defence has the tendency to be extremely leaky, however, under the guidance of former Springbok hooker Naka Drotske, the defensive attitudes have changed and their opposition are now being made to work harder for five-pointers.
Bloemfontein is the home of South Africa’s most successful nursery, Grey College. The likes of Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Francois Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, Adriaan Strauss and Flip van der Merwe all plied their trade and cut their teeth at Grey College. Unfortunately for the Cheetahs, the unions with deeper pockets often poach such players, but their team ethos is built around courage, heart and pride in their province, which makes them so much more exciting to watch. Now that the Cheetahs have staked their claims and truly announced themselves on the Super Rugby stage, teams will be looking at ways to deconstruct their game plans and exploit their weaknesses more than ever. 2014 will surely prove to be a character-defining year for the Free State-based franchise.
Prediction: The Cheetahs should finish behind the Sharks and the Stormers, but will fail to reproduce the form that took them to the Super Rugby finals series last year.
Blue Bulls (4th)
Team Base: Pretoria, South Africa
Home Stadium: Loftus Versfeld
Coach: Frans Ludeke
Captain: Pierre Spies (Number 8)
Key Players Gained: Bandise Maku (Hooker), Jacques Engelbrecht (Number 8), Piet Van Zyl (Halfback),
Key Players Lost: Chililboy Ralepelle (Hooker), Juandre Kruger (Lock), Dewald Potgieter (Flanker), Jacques Potgieter (Flanker), Morne Steyn (Flyhalf), Wynand Olivier (Centre), Zane Kirchner (Fullback)
Superstars: Pierre Spies (Number 8), Francois Hougaard (Halfback, Wing), JJ Engelbrecht (Centre)
Rising Stars: Arno Botha (Flanker), Handre Pollard (Flyhalf)
Hailing from Pretoria, the Blue Bulls have been one of the most intimidating and successful teams in the modern era and are the only South African team to win the Super Rugby Championship. Gone are the days of having a Springbok-laden team, however, the powerhouses from Pretoria have handled the post-RWC 2011 era with aplomb and their second placing in the overall standings at the end of the regular season last year certainly made the rugby world stand up and take notice. A gut-wrenching performance in the penultimate hurdle against the Brumbies in Pretoria was a sour note to finish the season on, however, they will take a lot of confidence out of it. In saying that, with even more players leaving the province for financial gains overseas, 2013 may have been the Bulls last genuine chance for the foreseeable future.
Without a doubt, the biggest story coming out of the Bulls camp during pre-season is the return of Victor Matfield. At 37 years young, his impact from a mental and emotional state will be huge, but physically will he be up to it against much younger, bulkier and hungrier men? Time will only tell, but his reintroduction to the picture has certainly had journalists around the rugby world chipping in their two cents worth. Pierre Spies, the man put in charge of rebuilding this successful franchise, had a better season last year before once again succumbing to injury. His place in the Springbok setup is in doubt and he needs a big year for the Bulls if he wants to wear the green and gold again. The Bulls use their base at altitude as an advantage and teams never enjoy going there, but it isn’t the fortress of old and I expect them to drop a few more matches there. I predict the Bulls to come fourth ahead of the Lions, but they will be more than entertaining along the way and will be the deliverers of many sore bodies throughout the course of the season.
Prediction: The Bulls should finish in the lower half of their conference and in a similar position overall.
Golden Lions (5th)
Team Base: Johannesburg, South Africa
Home Stadium: Ellis Park Stadium
Coach: Johan Ackermann
Captain: Alwyn Hollenbach (Centre)
Players Gained: Franco van der Merwe (Lock), Derick Minnie (Flanker), Elton Jantjies (Flyhalf)
Players Lost: N/A
Superstars: Franco van der Merwe (Lock), Derick Minnie (Flanker), Elton Jantjies (Flyhalf)
Rising Stars: Courtnall Skosan (Wing)
After a season on the sidelines, the Lions are back with a Super Rugby license having displaced the Southern Kings in a home and away series that occurred after last year’s Super Rugby competition. Their greatest achievements were finishing as beaten semi-finalists in 2000 and 2001, however since then, they have finished no better than 11th and only recorded 27 victories from a possible 152 matches (>18%) over 11 years. To me they don’t have the funds or the player-pulling power to cause any of the top eight teams much concern and many people will be looking at the Lions fixture as a ‘bye’, where they can essentially rest some of their tiring stars.
Whether the Lions remain in the competition post-2014 is yet to be known, however, I can’t see their results this season putting up a good argument for their continued inclusion. It is a shame that the Johannesburg-based franchise is weak because it really is the heart and soul of South African rugby, but history says that the Lions will fail to make any great roar and their results against the Highlanders, Rebels and Force could well determine if they are to receive the infamous wooden spoon.
Prediction: It is going to be a long and painful season for the Lions and should they lose many of their first-choice players, four-try bonus points will be basically handed to their opposition – Lions to finish dead last.
All of the above are the opinions of the author and are not recommendations or advice. The author may not be taking every bet listed above. Bet at your own risk.
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