Super Rugby 2019: South Africa Conference preview
Last Updated: 12/02/19 5:48pm
The Lions dominated the South African Conference in 2018 and look well-placed to do so again this year, but can one of their rivals pip them to the glory?
The Lions were once again South Africa's most successful franchise last year, topping their conference and finishing second in the overall standings.
They went on to make it to the final with play-off victories over the Jaguares and the Waratahs but sadly the title-decider was one hurdle too many with the Crusaders claiming a 37-18 victory; a worrying theme for the Johannesburg-based side as they have now lost the last three Super Rugby finals.
On the one hand they are doing well to get to the tournament showpiece, but on the other they have struggled to convert those opportunities into silverware.
Head coach Swys de Bruin has been involved with the Springboks as an attacking consultant, and Rassie Erasmus is keen for the 58-year-old to stay on until the World Cup. Certainly the Boks looked more potent with the ball with De Bruin involved, but could his split duties impact the ambitions of the Lions?
With the Boks not playing any Tests until Super Rugby is concluded it's less likely that they will prove a distraction to the Lions boss.
De Bruin is a coach who knows his stuff, and with World Rugby's Breakthrough Player of the Year Aphiwe Dyantyi and Player of the Year nominee Malcolm Marx in his squad, the Lions look likely to once again set the pace for South African franchises in 2019.
The Jaguares enjoyed a sensational season last year that underlined their growing confidence and class in what was just their third year in the competition.
The Buenos Aires-based side recorded nine wins during the regular season including four straight away victories against the Rebels and Brumbies in Australia and the Blues and the Chiefs in New Zealand.
They were in a position to finish top of the South African conference last year, but fell to defeats at the Bulls and the Sharks, which allowed the Lions to eventually finish top of the pile.
However, their seventh-place finish in the overall standings ensured they still made the quarter-finals for the first time in their history, and though they were comprehensively beaten by the Lions in Johannesburg there was evidence of clear progress.
Unfortunately, their headline-grabbing success saw their head coach Mario Ledesma swiftly promoted to the national job after just one season in charge of the Jaguares.
Another former Pumas star Gonzalo Quesada has since taken the reins having been lured back to the country of his birth after an 18-and-a-half year rugby odyssey.
The most pressing issue he faces is how to fill the void left by the hugely influential fly-half Nicolas Sanchez who has switched to French side Stade Francais having orchestrated the Jaguares' impressive campaign in 2018.
Quesada insists Sanchez's departure provides an opportunity for youngsters such as Tito Diaz Bonilla, Domingo Miotti and Juanchi Mallia to take the next stage in their development while Emiliano Boffelli and Gonzalez Iglesias offer more experienced options.
Consistency eluded the Sharks in 2018 but a third-place finish in the South African Conference proved just enough to earn a place in the play-offs although they were swept aside by the Crusaders in the quarter-finals.
The Sharks boast some of the best young talent in South Africa, with the likes of Jean-Luc du Preez, who returns from Sale, and his brothers Dan and Robert as well as Sbu Nkosi and Curwin Bosch.
However, the Durban side have struggled to make any sort of impact in Super Rugby for the better part of a decade.
Since being convincingly beaten by the Chiefs in the 2012 final, the Sharks have barely fired a shot in the competition. They've consistently made the play-offs, but haven't made any inroads.
Head coach Robert du Preez has a settled squad at his disposal and has handed the captaincy to Currie Cup-winning scrum-half Louis Schreuder.
This year they will be looking to build on their domestic title of 2018, having beaten Western Province in the Currie Cup final in Cape Town - the only side to have beaten Western Province throughout the competition.
A notable addition to the Sharks' armoury is attack coach Dave Williams who joins head coach Robert du Preez's support staff following impressive stints with Southern Kings, Bath, London Irish, Kobe Steelers and the Cheetahs.
"Lack of consistency last year was a big problem for us," Du Preez conceded ahead of the new season. "We had flashes of brilliance but there was little continuity. We created so many line-breaks but couldn't finish. Clearly, that has to change," he said.
Last year proved to be a major disappointment for The Stormers with six victories leaving them 11th in the overall standings - just a year after qualifying for the play-offs.
The team's preparations for the new season have not been helped by rumours of a power struggle, player strikes, sponsors threatening to pull out and disquiet over the involvement and treatment of assistant coach Paul Treu.
Those responsible for steering the Stormers into clearer waters are head coach Robbie Fleck, who remains in charge despite their recent troubles, and captain Siya Kolisi.
They are also not short of the kind of playing talent required to lift themselves out of the mire with their squad boasting the likes of Steven Kitshoff, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Damian de Allende, Ruhan Nel and Damian Willemse.
In their bid to return to the play-offs, Fleck has set his sights on victories away from home - starting with their opening at The Bulls.
"If you want to do well in this competition you've got to win away from home, whether that's in your local derbies or in New Zealand," Fleck told the Cape Times.
"We let ourselves down last year because some of those losses were close. We know we've got our work cut out. It's always tough at Loftus, but we need to win those away games," he added.
The Bulls propped up the South African Conference in 2018 with six victories also leaving the three-time winners a lowly 12th in the overall standings.
Since the curtain fell on that disappointing campaign, they have also seen head coach John Mitchell depart for England with Currie Cup coach Pote Human installed as his replacement and the experienced Alan Zondagh appointed as director of rugby.
The loss of Adriaan Strauss to retirement is also a significant one but they appear to have recruited wisely with loose forward Duane Vermeulen, hooker Schalk Brits and Sevens star Rosko Specman among those charged with breathing life back into the franchise.
It has been six years since The Bulls graced the play-offs and Human believes a return to those glory days starts with making their Loftus Versfeld Stadium home a feared fortress once again.
"If we can manage to fill Loftus‚ I know that everyone will be scared of coming here because they will know that it won't be easy to get results in Pretoria," he told Business Day ahead of the new season.
"Last year we didn't use our opportunities‚ and in Super Rugby if you don't use your opportunities you are gone. We had games that we should have won but we have experienced players in the squad this year and we must be positive‚ stay on the ground and level-headed and do our best every game," he added.