Northern Bulls could not have received a more timely boost as they prepare for the Super 15 championship kick-off this weekend than the return after a long injury of scrum-half Fourie du Preez.
The Pretoria-based franchise are chasing a Super hat-trick after winning the last two editions of the 14-team version before the Melbourne Rebels were added and the format changed with far more national derbies in the mix.
Bulls used home advantage to humiliate New Zealand visitors Waikato Chiefs in the 2009 decider and got the better of compatriots Western Stormers in Soweto last year when the Fifa World Cup ruled out using Loftus Versfeld.
Wing Francois Hougaard stood in for Du Preez at provincial and national team level and he has no doubt the player rated the best number nine in the world will leave his mark.
“Having Fourie back is going to help us improve on last season. His presence will be a big positive and our ambition is to do the things we do well even better this time round,” he said.
Bjorn Basson, the former Central Cheetahs wing — who broke a 21-year Currie Cup record of Carel du Plessis last season with 21 tries — has become a Bull, although there is no guarantee of a starting place.
With Du Preez back at the base of the scrum to direct operations with his lethal cocktail of passing and field kicking, Hougaard may return to the left wing and Gerhard van den Heever is a likely choice on the other side.
Basson is probably relieved just to be in contention as he and Bulls reserve hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle had the cloud of positive dope tests hanging over their heads for several months before being cleared in January.
The Bulls pack is a match for any rival with the star cast including prop Gurthro Steenkamp, hooker Gary Botha, locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha and loose trio Deon Stegmann, Dewald Potgieter and Pierre Spies.
Du Preez partners “Points Machine” Morne Steyn at halfback and while the backline appears strong, a lack of reserve depth may concern head coach Frans Ludeke and assistant Pieter Rossouw.
Sharks might have a chance
Stormers suffered a cruel pre-season blow when experienced hooker Tiaan Liebenberg suffered a knee injury during a warm-up victory that is likely to sideline him for the entire tournament that ends early July.
Deon Fourie should take over the number two shirt for the Cape Town-based team, but should anything happen to him coach Allister Coetzee would have a deep frown as third-in-line Siyabonga Ntubeni is a rookie.
The third South African outfit capable of fighting for the ultimate prize are Coastal Sharks from Durban, who defeated Bulls and Stormers last year to lift the domestic Currie Cup provincial crown.
New Zealand-born coach John Plumtree has the pleasant task of choosing his front row from four current Springboks — captain John Smit and fellow hooker Bismarck du Plessis, plus props Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis.
Up is surely the only way to go for Golden Lions under former All Blacks coach John Mitchell after the Johannesburg side lost all 13 matches last year — some by embarrassing margins.
Young fly-half Elton Jantjies has the flair and place kicking skills to offer hope of a brighter future and squad additions include flying winger Lionel Mapoe from Cheetahs and livewire hooker Bandise Maku from Bulls.
Coach Naka Drotske believes the days of Cheetahs being the whipping boys among the South African quintet are set to end with the imminent return from injury of supreme “scavenger” Heinrich Brussow at loose forward a huge boost.
Fellow flanker Juan Smith is an international colossus, Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss and WP Nel form an imposing front row and scrum-half Sarel Pretorius and ex-Sharks centre Andries Strauss can inflict damage.
Playing only four of 16 mini-league fixtures outside the country instead of five of 13 for some teams in the Super 14 will aid all the South African teams and the appeal of derbies in the stands and on TV is beyond question. — Sapa-AFP