SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE – AFRICA 1
Team Base: Pretoria, South Africa
Home Stadium: Loftus Versfeld
Coach: Nollis Marais
Captain: Handre Pollard (Flyhalf)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 2nd/9th
Key Players Gained: Lood de Jager (Lock),
Key Players Lost: Dean Greyling (Prop), Werner Kruger (Prop), Marcel van der Merwe (Prop), Lappies Labuschagne (Flanker), Bjorn Basson (Wing)
Superstars: Adriaan Strauss (Hooker), Handre Pollard (Flyhalf), Jesse Kriel (Centre)
Rising Stars: RG Snyman (Lock), Warrick Gelant (Fullback)
The Bulls are the most successful South African franchise having won the Super Rugby title three times, but times have been a bit tougher since they last held up the trophy in 2010. The Bulls inconsistency last year saw them narrowly miss out on the playoffs with the Stormers getting the edge over them by a solitary competition point. Their discipline was also extremely costly, as they gave away the second most amount of penalties in the competition (168 – averaging 11 per game).
This year, the Bulls remain a young team, but it is nothing new that they have had to say goodbye to some of their more experienced personnel such as Werner Kruger and Dean Greyling in the front row and Bjorn Basson out wide. Second year coach Noelis Marais believes his team possesses the talent and the hunger to at least make the playoffs this year. Marais has entrusted Handre Pollard, one of the brightest prospects in the game, to lead the Bulls in the early stages of the competition whilst Adriaan Strauss recovers on the sideline from neck surgery. Pollard missed all of last season and the playmaker is considered to be a vital cog in not only the Bulls engine, but in reviving the Springboks as well.
The Bulls have been handed a demanding draw this season starting with two away derbies against the Stormers and the Cheetahs, before having to travel to New Zealand to face the Blues and the Chiefs and then the Sunwolves in Japan. Their main competition will come from the Stormers in their conference so those two derbies will be classic South African bash-and-crash matches. With youngsters like Lood de Jager, RG Snyman, Hanro Liebenberg (vice-captain), Handre Pollard, Jan Serfontein, Jesse Kriel and Warrick Gelant, the Bulls are definitely a team to keep an eye on and if they can get through the first couple months relatively unscathed, they should find themselves sneaking into the playoff picture come July.
Prediction: Africa 1 Conference Winners
Team Base: Cape Town, South Africa
Home Stadium: Newlands Stadium
Coach: Robbie Fleck
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 1st/Quarter-finalist
Key Players Gained: Seabelo Senatla (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Vincent Koch (Prop), Schalk Burger (Flanker), Jaco Taute (Utility back)
Superstars: Pieter-Steph du Toit (Lock), Eben Etzebeth (Lock), Damien de Allende (Centre),
Rising Stars: Huw Jones (Centre), Seabelo Senatla (Wing), Cheslin Kolbe (Outside back)
In 2016, the Stormers won their conference for the fourth time in six seasons, which is no mean feat, however, the fact that they are yet to win a title has been a huge disappointment. The Stormers managed to secure ten wins last season and were defensively sound, something that has been synonymous with Stormers rugby for the past five years. Their problem has been their inability to attack, which causes difficulties when their defence leaks, and that was reiterated when the Chiefs rolled into town in a quarter-final clash up and won by 41 points in Cape Town.
Robbie Fleck will have an even more challenging second year in charge as head coach as this time around, the Stormers won’t face any Australian teams in the regular season and they have a tour from hell in New Zealand. To add to this, they have opening and closing fixtures against the Bulls, which could ultimately determine their playoff fate. The loss of Springbok prop Vincent Koch in the front row and Stormers and Springbok legend Schalk Burger, will leave big voids to fill. The youth coming through the system in Cape Town is a positive sign with the likes of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit already making a name for themselves on the world stage, but I am most excited about Seabelo Senatla making the switch from Sevens for the season. Senatla has out-and-out speed, something you can’t coach, and he has been the leading try-scorer on the Sevens circuit for the past three (including this year’s three tournaments) seasons.
Although the Stormers can still name a strong starting 15, it is their lack of depth that would be worrying Fleck, as injuries will inevitably start to compile at some stage during the season. Things haven’t started well with hooker Scarra Ntubeni ruled out for the season in pre-season. Expect the Stormers to maul everything they get close the try line, but I still think they are a couple years off implementing an effective attacking strategy, which will inevitably cost them again.
Prediction: Stormers to finish runners up in Africa 1
Team Base: Bloemfontein, South Africa
Home Stadium: Free State Stadium
Coach: Franco Smith
Captain: Francois Venter (Centre)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 3rd/14th
Players Gained: No notable inclusions
Players Lost: Lood de Jager (Lock), Sias Ebersohn (Flyhalf)
Superstars: Francois Venter (Centre)
Rising Stars: Ox Nche (Prop)
It has now been four years since the Cheetahs made a real push for the Super Rugby playoff picture, but in recent seasons, the Cheetahs have settled back into the ‘making up the numbers’ mindset. In saying that, under the guidance of Franco Smith, the Cheetahs were crowned Currie Cup champions last season finishing the competition undefeated. The Cheetahs will be without their inspirational skipper and recently-capped Springbok centre Francois Venter for the first few rounds due to off-season knee surgery. They have also lost the towering Lood de Jager in the forward pack, a player who has provided them with some strong carries and thunderous clean outs at the rucks. The Cheetahs have never had a problem scoring tries, in fact you’ll often find them on the weekly highlight reels (especially when playing in Bloemfontein), but defence wins Championships. This year they will face the more powerful and skilful New Zealand teams so, I expect to see some high-scoring games, with the Bloemfontein-based outfit on the wrong side of the scoreboard. I predict that they will finish third in their conference, but they won’t be anywhere near good enough to give the top half of the table a run for their money.
Prediction: Third in the Africa 1 Conference
Team Base: Tokyo, Japan
Home Stadium: Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium
Coach: Filo Tiatia
Captain: Ed Quirk (Flanker) and Harumichi Tatekawa (Flyhalf/Inside Centre)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 4th/18th
Players Gained: Fumiaki Tanaka (Halfback), Kotaro Matsushima (Fullback), Kenki Fukuoka (Wing)
Players Lost: Andrew Durutalo (Flanker), Tomas Leonardi (Number 8), Tusi Pisi (Flyhalf), Akihito Yamada (Wing)
Superstars: Shota Horie (Hooker)
The Sunwolves enter their second season of Super Rugby after what was a very disappointing 2016, where they collected the dreaded wooden-spoon. The Sunwolves managed just the one win over a complacent Jaguares outfit in Tokyo and had the second worst points differential in the competition. The fans in Tokyo and Singapore did get behind their team, but the size and pace of Super Rugby clearly caught them off-guard. This season they have lost a lot of their international flavour with the likes of Andrew Durutalo (USA Sevens), Tomas Leonardi (Leicester), and the influential Tusi Pisi (Bristol) moving on. The latter gave the Sunwolves a lot of direction last season and his goal kicking often kept them in matches. Local star winger Akihito Yamada has also been left out of the squad, but his replacement, Kenki Fukuoka does have Sevens experience and could be considered a like-for-like replacement.
What concerns me most is the departure of coach Mark Hammett after just one season. Clearly there are issues within the organisation and a potential lack of belief at the top. Although former Ospreys and Hurricanes lock Filo Tiatia has been promoted from the forwards coach to head coach, I personally feel that an organisation that is still trying to find its feet needs a seasoned veteran to pull the strings. The Sunwolves are slow starters with the Japanese Top League only culminating in January and the lack of pre-season is going to catch captains Ed Quirk, Harumichi Tatekawa and their troops on the back foot. Especially when playing against Kiwi opposition who will after nothing less than five competition points each match they play against them.
Prediction: Last in the Africa 1 Conference
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE – AFRICA 2
Team Base: Johannesburg, South Africa
Home Stadium: Ellis Park Stadium
Coach: Johan Ackermann
Captain: Warren Whiteley (Number 8)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 1st/Runner-up
Players Gained: No notable inclusions
Players Lost: Warrick Tecklenburg (Flanker), Marnitz Boshoff (Flyhalf)
Superstars: Warren Whiteley (Number 8)
Rising Stars: Jaco Kriel (Flanker), Faf de Klerk (Halfback)
After the highs of 2015 being the Lions best rugby season ever, the fairy-tale continued in 2016 with the Lions finishing runners up to the Hurricanes in the Final. Not bad for a team that was involved in a promotion/relegation battle with the Kings to stay in the competition just three years ago. With a young and somewhat inexperienced coach in Johan Ackermann and a squad comprising of players that only managed to crack the Springboks squad last year, the Lions were a joy to watch, both home and away, only dropping four matches all season. The Lions broke the season try-scoring record having crossed for 81 tries in their 15 regular season games, with rising stars Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Courtnall Skosan crossing the chalk ten times (2nd most) and Lionel Mapoe close behind them with nine. Playmaker Elton Jantjies was a sharpshooter at times, collecting 190 points, although he often went missing in the big games, namely in the Super Rugby Final.
Looking ahead to this season, the squad remains intact and eager to bring silverware back to South Africa for the first time since the Bulls did in 2010. Their regular season task will be made easier by the fact that they don’t have to play any of the New Zealand teams. The Lions will only begin their overseas tour in round ten, so they should be hitting their straps and in a comfortable position by that point. Their tight five sets a great platform at scrum time, there is enough tall timber in the lineouts and their backrow has great balance. Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies will be in charge of orchestrating an exciting backline, but if the Lions can reproduce the scintillating brand they played last season, they will be well worth a watch and potential title contenders.
Prediction: The Lions are the premier team in South Africa currently and they will be eager to make the playoffs again. I feel they still need another superstar or two in their line-up to be able to go to New Zealand and win the tournament there, but if they land a home final like they should’ve last year (last round loss to the Jaguares), anything can happen.
Team Base: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Home Stadium: Estadio Jose Amalfitani
Coach: Raul Perez
Captain: Agustin Creevy (Hooker)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 3rd/13th
Key Players Gained: No notable inclusions
Key Players Lost: Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino (Outside back)
Superstars: Agustin Creevy (Hooker), Facundo Isa (Number 8), Nicholas Sanchez (Flyhalf)
Rising Stars: Matias Moroni (Centre), Santiago Cordero (Wing)
I truly believe that that Jaguares were the biggest disappointments of 2016. For a team that possesses so many experienced internationals in the forwards and the backs, they were guilty of playing a rushed brand of rugby that inevitably allowed other teams to capitalise on their mistakes off turnover ball. Their discipline was atrocious at the best of times, especially with red cards to prop Ramiro Herrera and lock Tomas Lavanini basically handing their opposition victories. In the end, the Jaguares managed four victories (Cheetahs, Kings (2), Lions) and 11 losses. In those losses, their defensive effort was lacking and their goal-kicking wasn’t up to professional standards.
Looking ahead to this season in coach Raul Perez’s second year in charge, I expect the Jaguares to be far better. They will be familiar with the travel requirements, there will be less attention on them and they have what I believe is the most settled squad in the competition. Their forward pack will be led by Agustin Creevy, a menace at the breakdown and rampaging number eight Facundo Isa. With Martin Landajo and Nicholas Sanchez steering the ship and a heap of pace out wide with Santiago Cordero and Joaquin Tuculet, if the Jaguares play structured football, they will pose a threat to any team on their day. The Estadio Jose Amalfitani will become more of a fortress this season and they fact that they avoid New Zealand teams until the playoffs will see them finish much higher up the ladder.
Prediction: The playoffs aren’t out of the question, but key matches against the Lions (Round 3 + 9) Sharks (Round 7 + 10) and their ability to handle the arduous travel schedule will determine their ability to progress out of the group stage. A definite smokey.
Team Base: Durban, South Africa
Home Stadium: Kings Park
Coach: Robert du Preez
Captain: Patrick Lambie (Flyhalf)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 2nd/8th
Key Players Gained: Jeremy Ward (Centre), Kobus van Wyk (Wing), Clement Poitrenaud (Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Dale Chadwick (Prop), Kyle Cooper (Hooker), Marcel Coetzee (Flanker), Paul Jordaan (Utility Back), JP Pietersen (Wing), Willie le Roux (Fullback)
Superstars: Tendai Mtawawira (Prop), Pat Lambie (Flyhalf)
Rising Stars: Jean-Luc du Preez (Back Row), Jeremy Ward (Centre) Curwin Bosch (Fullback)
After a disastrous 2015, the Sharks did well to clinch the final wildcard spot and make the playoffs last season. Unfortunately for them, they were shutout 0 – 43 by a rampant Hurricanes outfit on a cold and wet night in Wellington. In saying that, the Sharks defence leaked the least number of points by any team all season (269 at 18 points per game), so they will have something to build on heading into this season.
There is a new coach in town, Robert du Preez, a former Sharks and Springboks halfback. From all accounts, his energy and enthusiasm and understanding of the Sharks culture has excited the locals, but of course the media releases are going to spin a positive pre-season story. His remit is to continue to develop the Sharks propensity to attack and hopefully he will bring some stability to the back office. As is the case with all South African teams, the Sharks have failed to retain several their stalwarts including the likes of flanker Marcel Coetzee, wing JP Pietersen and the mercurial Willie le Roux. Thus, a lot of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of captain Pat Lambie, a player who has never really lived up to his potential, consequently due to a torrid run of injuries. I’m excited to see that likes of Jean-Luc and Dan play under his father’s structures and Jeremy Ward and Curwin Bosch are Springboks in the making, having represented their country recently at the Under 20 World Cup.
Prediction: The Sharks are still a work in progress and I wouldn’t back them to make the playoffs with any great confidence.
Team Base: Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Home Stadium: Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
Coach: Deon Davids
Captain: Not released at time of writing – a worrying sign
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 4th/17th
Players Gained: Ross Geldenhuys (Prop), Chris Heiberg (Prop)
Players Lost: Edgar Maratlulle (Hooker), Steven Sykes (Lock), Jeremy Ward (Centre), Jurgen Visser (Fullback)
Rising Stars: None
Looking at my write-up last year, it almost reads as a carbon copy of how I see things panning out this season. The Kings will embark on their second consecutive season of Super Rugby and their third in four years due to a promotion/relegation system that used to exist in South Africa. The Kings didn’t finish as ‘wooden-spooners’ last season as I predicted, but they still only managed to win two matches (Sunwolves and Jaguares). Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of player movement in the off-season, but the cash-strapped union has failed to lure any exciting prospects or players that could make up a genuine leadership group. The Kings have the benefit of not having to play against teams in the New Zealand conference this year, which will make things somewhat easier, but I can almost guarantee a bottom-three finish. In 2016, they conceded more points than any other team at an average of 45 points per game and I truly believe that their existence (and a few other teams) in the competition is a contributor to why the competition isn’t as popular as it once was.