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Super 14: The ins and outs

South African rugby will enjoy an auspicious season this year. We begin the year as the envy of the rugby-playing nations, champions of both the world and the Super 14. Even the internecine wrangling for power in the South African Rugby Union (Saru) has failed to dim that envy, for excellence in the sporting arena is always player-driven — as much as generations of megalomaniac administrators would wish it otherwise.

The fact that Peter de Villiers is the new Springbok coach and that there may be a new Saru president in a few weeks’ time is gloriously irrelevant. Far more damaging to the prospects of South Africa’s five teams in this year’s Super 14 is the a number of influential and gifted players who have chosen to ply their trade overseas, principally in France.

The Bulls will miss Victor Matfield like a wilting Barberton Daisy misses rain.

Perhaps cognisant of how much his own game relies on Matfield, Bakkies Botha tried to break his Bulls contract this week to go and join his pal in France. Quite rightly the Bulls stood up for their rights and reminded Botha that he had just signed a new contract lasting until 2011.

Contractual issues were expected to scatter the outrageously gifted Sharks squad to the four winds at the end of 2007, but Dick Muir’s first team of the season, to play against the Force in Durban on Friday night, has the familiarity of a favourite teddy bear.

John Smit and Percy Montgomery have gone to France and Butch James to England, but consider their replacements: Bismarck du Plessis may already be the best hooker in the world, Francois Steyn has more gifts than Father Christmas, and in James’s place comes the mercurial Frenchman, Frederick Michalak.

As for the old stagers, Muir has managed to persuade both AJ Venter and Johan Ackermann to go to the wall one more time. Ackermann is 38 and had already accepted full-time employment outside rugby in Cape Town before answering Muir’s distress call, while Venter has retired in each of the last two seasons — only to emerge from the tunnel on opening day, singing My Way.

Both Venter and Ackermann were playing first-class rugby when the Super 12 began in 1996. Free State failed to qualify so AJ didn’t feature, but the 25-year-old Ackermann was Krynauw Otto’s lock partner at the Bulls.

The game had gone professional nine months previously and the Springboks had rung in the new era by winning the World Cup. The fortunate few who were involved in winning the Webb-Ellis trophy had multimillion-rand three-year contracts, and the acrimonious break-up of Kitch Christie’s team was still some months away.

Then, as now, South African rugby was on a high despite boardroom battles. As in 2007, the Bulls and Sharks both made the semifinals and, while the former came a cropper in Auckland, the latter produced one of the great performances in the history of Super Rugby at Ballymore in Brisbane.

The Reds were the defending champions from the last season of the Super 10 and they had topped the log to earn a home semi. The Sharks whipped them 43-25 to march to the final, where they lost in style to a great Blues team, 45-21.

Ultimately, however, 1996 was remembered as a bad year for South African rugby. Christie stepped down as coach of the Boks and his replacement, Andre Markgraaff, could not find a way to deal with a few key players. Both Francois Pienaar and Joel Stransky were playing in England by the end of the year and a great opportunity was lost.

Which brings us rather neatly back to the present. The Boks are World Champions, but heaven only knows which 15 players will take the field for the opening test in June. The Bulls are Super 14 champions, but it would be a brave man who would back them to repeat it in 2008 without (among others) Matfield, Gary Botha and coach Heyneke Meyer.

The Sharks have suffered far less predation and have a set of backs capable of turning water into wine. They have the draw from hell, however, and will need more than a little good fortune to overcome it. The good news is that they have the ability to succeed, which is not the case for any of the Lions, Cheetahs and Stormers.

The biggest issue that all 14 teams will have to deal with is one beyond the players’ control. The Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) will once again make referees the unfortunate centre of attention. The ELVs were devised by a number of respected rugby people, among them the former Sharks coach, Ian McIntosh. But early reports suggest that they will cause far more problems than they solve.

Last year it was the four-phase engagement process at the scrum that upset everyone. This year it will be the offside lines implemented at the tackle. Take pity on the referee, then, for he is only doing his job.

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