The 2015 Super Rugby season gets underway next week and South African teams will be hoping it does so with a bang rather than a whimper.
Last season the local franchises occupied four of the bottom seven places on the overall log. The Sharks were the exceptions, finishing third after topping the log for much of the year.
It seems more than a little ironic, then, that of all our sides the Sharks will look back on 2014 with the least affection. A complete overhaul of the management system has much to do with that and it seems incredible to recall that in the past 18 months the Durban franchise has had five coaches: John Plumtree, Brendan Venter, Jake White, Brad Macleod-Henderson and Gary Gold.
The last took charge of his first game this week in the unlikely environs of Toulon. Gold was signed from the Japanese club Kobelco Steelers and went on tour to the south of France with Venter, his technical director.
There has been a revolving door at player level with five stalwarts moving overseas and a host of new names replacing them. There is a hint of bargain-basement purchasing attached to those names. Renaldo Bothma is a feisty loose forward signed from the Pumas, and Paul Perez is a Samoan journeyman wing, whose contract with the Kings was terminated in November because of absenteeism. Mouritz Botha was born in Vryheid, but has played most of his career in England, winning 10 caps for the national side along the way.
Botha is 33 and yet another attempt by the Sharks to shore up their lock resources. Like Botha, Waylon Murray is a KwaZulu-Natal native and has returned to the Sharks for a second stint. Murray looked destined for great things as a young centre, winning four Springbok caps along the way, but his career stalled and he has spent the past four seasons as a rugby gypsy.
The great imponderable of the season, not just for the Sharks but for all the franchises, is how many of their current internationals will be available for selection. This being a World Cup year, all three nations involved in Super Rugby will be wrestling with the same issue of player burnout.
In 2007, All Blacks coach Graham Henry went so far as to pick two separate squads, but that caused more confusion than anything else and New Zealand lost at the quarterfinal stage of that World Cup.
The South African Rugby Union (Saru) will do its best to get the franchises to go easy on key Springboks, but history tells us that the governing body is likely to be met with a deaf ear. National captain Jean de Villiers will not be part of the negotiations, because he is in long-term rehab for an injury sustained in Cardiff during the final Springbok Test of 2014.
De Villiers is in a race against time to be fit for World Cup selection, but the Stormers have been optimistic enough to include him in their squad list ahead of the new season.
The Cape Town franchise has had a bad week. First, long-term coach Allister Coetzee announced a move to Japan at the end of the Super Rugby season to replace Gold at the Steelers. Then, promising young lock Gerbrandt Grobler received a two-year ban after failing a drugs test. Grobler tested positive during the 2014 Currie Cup season for the banned steroid drostanolone.
On top of that, the Stormers lost two locks to injury – Springbok Eben Etzebeth and Argentine international Manuel Carizza. Both were laid low after a preseason friendly against the Cheetahs last week. In the circumstances, it is hard to imagine the Stormers leading the charge for South African sides this year.
In fact, the strongest-looking franchise on paper is the Bulls, with the ageless Victor Matfield back in tow and the precocious young flyhalf Handré Pollard in charge of the back line. The best signing of the year is Adriaan Strauss, and the Cheetahs hooker is joined by teammate Trevor Nyakane in the move to the Bulls. Strauss will make a huge difference to the three-time champions and if some of the young talent, such as Jesse Kriel and Jan Serfontein, have big years, it could be a season to relish.
The big question is whether the Lions can improve on 2014 when they won more games in one campaign than the franchise has managed in its history. The reward for that sponsorless campaign has come with a five-year sponsorship deal from Emirates Airlines. The money allows coach Johan Ackermann to give security of tenure to his players and it is possible that that will allow them to play with even greater freedom than was the case last year.