Super Rugby: Who is Super strong this year?
The Super Rugby season begins in earnest this weekend with local derbies dominating all three conferences. In the one cross-conference match-up, the Kings make their debut in the competition in place of the relegated Lions. We take a look at the teams and personalities likely to dominate table talk among the chattering classes this year.
Allister Coetzee's team has become adept at dominating log play, but has yet to work out how to play in knockout fixtures, losing home semifinals in successive seasons. They have benefited the most from the relegation of the Lions, and Springboks Elton Jantjies, Pat Cilliers and Jaco Taute are all relocating to Cape Town. The attacking thrust the trio adds to the best defence in the competition may be the catalyst for a special year.
Player to watch: Elton Jantjies. A gifted player whose talents were too esoteric for the Lions. A few kindred spirits at the Stormers should bring the best out of him to mutual benefit.
Last year's surprise finalists have had their ambitions dented in the build-up to the new season. To the long-term injury sustained by Bismarck du Plessis last year add the injuries to Keegan Daniel, Tim Whitehead and Willem Alberts. All four will miss at least the first month of the season, a factor that is certain to test the depth of John Plumtree's squad.
Player to watch: Frans Steyn. Back after three seasons in France, the mercurial Steyn has been entrusted with the captain's armband. It will either make him or break him.
The blue machine was expected to struggle in 2012 after the retirement and departure of half a dozen iconic players. Instead, the new brigade found a way to remain competitive, and Juandre Kruger is going all the way from Victor Matfield understudy to trusted Springbok in the process. The trend of their season should become apparent as early as this Friday night, when they host the Stormers at Loftus.
Player to watch: Francois Hougaard. The halo started to slip last year, as the strain of playing two positions began to tell. Coach Frans Ludeke has the task of deciding whether Hougaard is a wing or a scrumhalf.
The cupboard looks bare in Bloemfontein, although any team led by the remarkable Adriaan Strauss can never be written off. The Cheetahs actually won more Super Rugby games last year than at any time in their history and they beat the Stormers in a preseason friendly three weeks ago. Nevertheless, they are expected to struggle in 2013.
Player to watch: Raymond Rhule. The heir apparent to the great Bryan Habana has arrived. He's black, he's from Bloemfontein (via Ghana) and he's going somewhere fast.
There will be many people willing the new boys on the block to fail, but for the sake of the game in this country the Eastern Cape needs to be strong. The draw has been kind to Luke Watson's team, because they begin by hosting the Force in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. If they can put some wayward preseason activity behind them and win on debut it will make a huge difference to their season.
Player to watch: Daniel Adongo. Back from a stint in New Zealand, the former Sharks academy loose forward could be the best player ever to come out of Kenya.
The Chiefs are the defending Super Rugby champions, having defeated the Sharks in last year's final, thereby putting behind them the 61-17 thrashing by the Bulls in the 2009 final. This year, however, coach Dave Rennie will not have the remarkable talents of Sonny Bill Williams to call on because the sometime heavyweight boxer has gone to Japan. But with Liam Messam at the base of the scrum and Aaron Cruden at flyhalf the Chiefs can be expected to challenge for a playoff place again.
Elsewhere, the Blues have a new coach in the great All Black wing, John Kirwan. The team that dominated the early years of Super Rugby is in a rebuilding phase and may struggle to maintain an interest in the competition past the halfway point.
The Blues begin against the Hurricanes, another side trying to establish a new identity. The 'Canes have always played attractive rugby and in Julian Savea, Andre Taylor and Beauden Barrett they have the kind of broken field runners to embarrass any side on their day.
Amazingly it is five years since the Crusaders won the title, after winning it seven times between 1996 and 2008. This year coach Todd Blackadder has given the captain's armband to Kieran Read, aware perhaps that the New Zealand Rugby Union don't want Richie McCaw to be overplayed. The franchise has lost the services of Ben Franks, who has moved to the Hurricanes, and Zac Guildford is in rehab after one alcohol-induced wild night too many.
The tournament began down under a week early, because of the mid-season demands of hosting a British Lions tour. The Rebels beat the Force in Melbourne 30-23 in a display that won't have sent shivers running down the spines of any other franchise. Jake White's Brumbies, on the other hand, were fairly clinical in dispatching the Reds 24-6 in Canberra.
The Brumbies were ousted from the playoffs by the Reds in the last week of log play last year, so this was sweet revenge. It may also have been a taste of things to come for the Reds, who will be without the excellent Will Genia for a few months owing to injury. The champions of 2011 may struggle this year as a result, because Genia is the fulcrum of the team.
The Waratahs haven't played yet, but tongues are wagging about their new signing, Israel Folau. The 23-year-old made his name in Rugby League before changing codes to Aussie Rules. He's built like a lock, plays fullback and Waratah fans are hoping they have their hands on another Sonny Bill.