SA teams face huge task to retain Super 14 title

South Africa’s five Super 14 teams will have to produce some of their best rugby if they are to retain the title they so famously won, for the first time, last year.

After years of being denied the title by the Australian and New Zealand teams, South Africa’s Northern Bulls finally went all the way in 2007, beating the Coastal Sharks in a pulsating final in Durban, with Springbok wing Bryan Habana winning it for his team with a heart-stopping try in the dying seconds.

It was the start of a memorable year for the South Africans as Jake White’s Springboks would later win the World Cup in France.

This year, however, will pose a whole new set of challengers for the men from Southern Africa. The Bulls, Sharks, Golden Lions, Central Cheetahs and Western Stormers will know they had an easy ride in 2007 ever before after the New Zealanders had withdrawn a host of star players for half of the Super 14, with an eye to keeping them fresh for the World Cup.

Somewhat surprisingly, South Africa’s big hope will lie with the Durban-based Sharks, and not the defending champion Bulls.

Last year’s losing finalists have been tipped by former Boks forward coach Gert Smal as having the best chance of winning the title this year.

“I’d put my money on the Sharks finishing in the top two,” Smal told the Sunday Independent.

“There’s a lot of versatility in the team, while the pack is very well-balanced.”

While they’ll miss the services of key World Cup Springboks John Smit and Percy Montgomery, who’ve both moved abroad, they still have a core of experienced campaigners who’ll lead the charge.

In AJ Venter, Johann Muller, Jacques Botes and exciting prospects Ruan Pienaar, Francois Steyn, Bismarck du Plessis and JP Pietersen there is plenty to get excited about. Add French import, flyhalf Frederic Michalak to the mix, and the Sharks look a formidable outfit.

Last year’s champions, the Bulls, will again make a good account of themselves as they go in search of their fourth consecutive semifinal spot, but they will have to regroup after a mass exodus at the end of last season.

Coach Heyneke Meyer has quit rugby, while captain Victor Matfield is now playing in France.

Hooker Gary Botha is also abroad, while there are injury concerns for Bakkies Botha and Bryan Habana.
And star loose forward Pierre Spies is still not ready for action after discovering clots in his lungs last year.

The Bulls’ structures, passion and experience though should see them through the rough times, but new coach Frans Ludeke, who was a failure in his four years at the Cats, has a big job ahead of him.

Much is again expected of the Stormers with World Cup stars such as Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers and Ricky Januarie the players new coach Rassie Erasmus will look towards to spark the side.

With the former Bok flanker and Cheetahs Currie Cup winning coach now in charge, the men from the Western Cape could be one of the surprise packages in the tournament.

As for the Cheetahs, who’re now being coached by former Bok hooker Naka Drotske, they look set for a tough time.

Not only will they have to do without key players such as Os du Randt, Ollie le Roux, Corniel van Zyl and points machine Willem de Waal—who’ve either moved on or retired—they face a serious lack of depth in key areas. They must be early frontrunners to pick up the wooden spoon.

But they could be pushed all the way by the Lions who also look thin in the reserves department.

Add to that the absence of injured World Cup stars Andre Pretorius and Jacque Fourie and the competition seems one step too high for the young brigade of coach Eugene Eloff.

He will rely heavily on a good team ethic and the return to the side of Bok veteran Joe van Niekerk, who’s back after four years with the Stormers. - AFP

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