The early stages of the 2008 Super 14 competition could be especially challenging for the five South African franchises — three of the teams have new coaches, and the training of all five has been affected to various degrees by the resting of their Springboks after the United Kingdom tour.
The effect of the resting of the Springboks for the franchises is that the preparation period with a full squad has been limited to four or five weeks instead of the preferred 10 or 11 weeks, including the late-year training.
The Bulls have lost five players from their 2007 Super 14-winning squad in Victor Matfield, Gary Botha, Danie Thiart, Jaco van der Westhuizen and Johan Roets, and also have a new coach in Frans Ludeke.
Rassie Erasmus, who had two seasons at the helm as Cheetahs coach, is now the new man in charge at the Stormers. Naka Drotske, Erasmus’s assistant at the Cheetahs, has taken over as coach of the Free State franchise.
Eugene Eloff, who had his first season as a Super 14 head coach this year in charge of the Lions, and the Sharks’ Dick Muir — with two campaigns behind him — are the Super 14 coaches who are the most established with their sides.
Muir, however, has a disadvantage, the proportions of which he shares only with the Bulls. Three of the Sharks’ current Springboks, captain John Smit, Butch James and Percy Montgomery, have left for greener pastures in Europe, as has Warren Britz, while Bob Skinstad has retired.
The Sharks also had Springboks Ryan Kankowski, Bismarck du Plessis, Johann Muller, Johan Ackermann, Albert van den Berg, Ruan Pienaar, JP Pietersen and Francois Steyn on the UK tour. Added to that, injuries to props Deon Carstens and Pat Cilliers have left the Sharks with only 23 of their preferred squad for their late-year Super 14 preparations.
The Bulls have, amongst others, lost captain Matfield, lock Francois van Schouwenburg, hooker Botha, centre Frikkie Welsh, props Wessel Roux and Thiart (all overseas), utility back Jacques-Louis Potgieter (to the Cheetahs), lock Adriaan Fondse (to the Stormers), as well as retired fullback Roets.
They had Bryan Habana, Wynand Olivier, Wayne Julies, Akona Ndungane and Hilton Lobberts on the UK tour, which also affected their preparations. Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Fourie du Preez and Wikus van Heerden were injured during the World Cup, while Gurthro Steenkamp was injured in a domestic mishap. Pierre Spies is not yet cleared for contact training after his lung ailment, and scrumhalf Heini Adams’s injury is not yet over, it seems.
All in all, it’s not a perfect position the Bulls are in.
Eloff has turned the Lions — previously the Cats in the Super 14 — around in his 18 months at the coaching helm at Ellis Park. He is probably the least affected of all the franchise coaches.
The Lions did have four Springboks on tour, and have lost Lawrence Sephaka and Ashwin Willemse to French rugby, as well as Wylie Human to the Stormers, but the continuity of an established team and coach augers well.
The Stormers already have a new coach and also a newly appointed captain in Jean de Villiers, and there will also be a number of new faces identified and contracted by Erasmus in the Super 14 squad — plus a new coaching philosophy that could impact negatively early on in the season.
Cheetahs’ coach Drotske had Wian du Preez, Jannie du Plessis, Barend Pieterse, Juan Smith and CJ van der Linde on tour and unavailable for the late-year training, while Kabamba Floors was with the Sevens Boks.
The Cheetahs have also lost Os du Randt to retirement at a stage in Drotske’s coaching career where the experience from his old 1995 World Cup-winning teammate could have been extremely valuable. — Sapa