Super 14: New year, new ball game

The new Super 14 season, which begins on Friday, could help determine whether South Africa’s dominance of world rugby was a one-year wonder.

South Africa provided both teams in last year’s Super 14 final — the Bulls beat the Sharks — and the Springboks went on to win the sixth World Cup in France.

Change has overtaken South African rugby since. Many experienced players are now seeing out their careers in Britain and France.

The champion Bulls, based in Pretoria, will be attempting to make their fourth straight semifinal appearance. They have lost influential captain Victor Matfield and winning coach Heyneke Meyer.

Meyer has quit rugby and the team is now in the charge of Frans Ludeke, who had four unsuccessful years as coach of the Cats and Lions. Matfield, like many of the top South African players of last season, is now playing in France.

Hooker Gary Botha has also left South Africa while several key players, including Springboks Bryan Habana and Bakkies Botha, will start the season with injuries. The worst injury concern for the Bulls surrounds international loose forward Pierre Spies, who is being treated for blood clots on the lungs.

The Sharks have also gone through a period of rapid change. World Cup Springboks Percy Montgomery and John Smit are now playing overseas, but Frederik Michalak, who was a member of the French team that reached the World Cup semifinals, has joined the franchise.

He adds strength and experience to a squad that already includes players such as AJ Venter, JP Pietersen, Ruan Pienaar and Francois Steyn.

The Sharks have been labelled the strongest of the South African franchises.

”I’d put my money on the Sharks finishing in the top two,” former Springbok assistant coach Gert Smal told the Sunday Independent.

”There’s a lot of versatility in the team.”

The Stormers have a new coach in former Springbok Rassie Erasmus and are confident of a better showing than last year, when they finished 10th.

”I’m very optimistic that we’re on track,” Erasmus said. ”The new signings [including prop Brian Mujati and lock Andriaan Fondse] are settling in well and there’s a good vibe.”

The Australian and New Zealand franchises are under considerable pressure to perform after last year.

The New Zealanders confronted the first half of last season without their All Blacks, pulled out to take part in a World Cup preconditioning programme, and struggled to improve later in the competition.

Australia’s New South Wales Waratahs and Queensland Reds finished at the bottom of the standings and former champions the ACT Brumbies missed the play-offs.

But the Western Force, under former All Black coach John Mitchell, had an outstanding second season.

”One of our strengths is that we are a lot more stable than other sides and have a bit more continuity,” Mitchell said.

The loss of Wallaby greats George Gregan and Stephen Larkham will hit the Brumbies hard.

”We will certainly miss their experience around the place,” coach Laurie Fisher said. ”They were talented players for a long period of time so we are a little unsure how much it will affect us.”

The Waratahs have signed league star Timana Tahu, who will start on the wing to help boost their backline strength.

”We weren’t happy with the season last year,” coach Ewen McKenzie said. ”We’ve had a really good look at the nuts and bolts of the business. We are a far more settled team this year.”

The Crusaders, champions on six occasions in the Super 12 and 14, look the strongest of the New Zealand franchises with the return of most of their large All Blacks contingent and the signings of locks Ali Williams and Brad Thorn.

Coach Robbie Deans will be leading the team into a Super 14 season for the last time as he prepares to take charge of the Wallabies.

”I don’t wish to dwell on the circumstances surrounding my departure — they have already been well publicised — except to say that the timing of my exit is right, both from a personal and family perspective, but also for the Crusaders,” Deans said.

The Auckland Blues will look to improve on last year’s semifinals appearance, though they have 14 players missing from last year’s squad — the largest number of changes among the New Zealand franchises.

”Everyone always has high expectations for the Blues and that is something we’ve learned to live with. Our own expectations are quite high as well,” coach David Nucifora said.

On Friday, the Reds host New Zealand’s Highlanders at Brisbane, the Brumbies play the Crusaders at Christchurch and the Sharks take on the Force in Durban.

On Saturday, the Blues host Waikato at Auckland, the Wellington Hurricanes travel to Sydney for a match against the Waratahs, the Stormers play the Bulls in Cape Town and the Cheetahs take on the Lions in Bloemfontein. — Sapa-AP

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