Boks on top
Leeds star Scott Mathie casts his eye over the chances of South Africa's Super Rugby sides.
By Scott Mathie
Last Updated: 18/02/11 7:16am
Leeds scrum-half Scott Mathie knows better than most about the high-intensity life playing rugby in South Africa.
Having been born in Durban, the 28-year-old had two spells playing for the Sharks - sandwiching a stint with the Bulls - before he moved to England.
And ahead of the new Super Rugby season, Mathie casts his eye over the chances of the five South Africa franchises bidding for glory in this season's new-look format...
The Bulls are the reigning champions of Super Rugby and have won the title three times in the last four years, including a record 60-17 final drubbing of the Chiefs in 2009. They are the in-form team in the competition and will no doubt be amongst the favourites to win it again.
Over the years the Bulls success has been established around their team's home form. Based in the South Africa's Capital city of Pretoria, the Bulls are unbeaten at Loftus Versfeld for over two seasons of Super Rugby. This owes much to the fervent support they receive from the Blue Bull faithful, who regularly pack out the 51,000-seater stadium. What faces the opposition when exiting the tunnel is an array of painted blue faces screaming local Afrikaans songs, fuelled by their local elixir of brandy and coke. Loftus is a fortress for any touring team. Add to that the altitude factor and you already have yourself a potent formula for success.
Since Heyneke Meyer's tenure as coach, the franchise has seen a considerable change in fortunes, as he led them to a barrage of Currie Cup titles and their coveted first Super Rugby title in 2007, in what was Super Rugby's most thrilling finale. Since then Meyer has moved upstairs into the director of rugby position - after a brief stint at Leicester - with Frans Ludeke appointed as the new head coach. This accruement has proved genius as Ludeke has led the team to consecutive final victories against the Chiefs and the Stormers respectively.
The Blue Bulls have always opted for size as a pre-requisite for being a forward, and the nurturing and acquisition of these massive assets have brought success to the decision makers behind them and in turn to the franchise itself.
Their powerhouse of a pack, led by their captain Victor Matfield, and accompanied by his companion Bakkies Botha, have become arguably the greatest second-row pairing of all time. They are the catalyst to front foot ball, as Matfield delivers from the line-outs and Botha at the rucks, the halfbacks are allowed to dictate play at their will.
Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn are the incumbent half-back pairing for the Bulls and South Africa, and in them they often find perfection. Both astute tactical kickers with sublime passing and running ability can wreak havoc when provided with quick ball, and will no doubt be targeted by numerous oppositions throughout the season. For the Bulls, they will hope that du Preez has recovered fully from his 9 month shoulder injury and can find the form that has made him the best scrumhalf in the world.
The Blue Bulls have recruited very few players in the close-season opting rather to promote from within. The only noticeable change is the introduction of Springbok flyer Bjorn Basson who joined from the Griquas.
This introduction of youth indicates a firm belief in the capabilities of these young players, many who have already proven themselves in this year's Currie Cup campaign. Look out for the likes of outside centre Stephan Dippenaar and prop Dean Greyling.
The Bulls have the perfect combination of experience and youth, and if they can negotiate the tricky tours down under, where they have dropped most of their points in previous seasons, then expect them to once again be the team to beat in this year's competition.
Star man - Fourie du Preez: The Springbok playmaker has missed the last nine months due to a shoulder injury, but given the platform he receives from his pack, expect him to be back to his best in no time. Possessing an all-round masterful game, he combines accurate passing, astute kicking, sniping breaks and tactical know-how to enforce his will on the game. The best in the game, and will be very hard to stop.
Young player to watch - Gerhard Van den Heever: Had the unenviable task of following in Bryan Habana's shoes after the Springbok ace left for the Stormers last year. However, has proved himself more than capable, scoring eight tries so far in Super Rugby. Missed out a fair amount of last year due to injury, but expect the winger to show more of his blistering pace this season which could give him an outside chance of obtaining a World Cup spot come the end of the year.
An ominous sign has been cast over Free State stadium as the franchise are still scrambling to find a sponsor for their team, after Vodacom cut back their investment in sport in South Africa. With no bids incoming, it reveals what many think will be another tough season for the boys from Bloemfontein.
However, it's not all doom and gloom. The Cheetahs form in last year's tournament left them in 10th place having recorded five wins in total. They proved to be a tough team to break down especially at home, and provided the competition with some unlikely upsets, noticeably against the New Zealand outfits of the Hurricanes and the Blues.
With a tight budget, coach Naka Drotske has brought in some astute signings, snapping up home-grown talent and ex-Natal Sharks centre Andries Strauss, whose form in the Currie Cup earned him a Springbok call up in the end of year tour. Sevens flyer Rayno Benjamin joins from the Lions, whilst the Cheetahs will welcome back another speedster, Philip Burger, who returns from France eager to emulate his performances in his previous spell with the Cheetahs.
Lock Wilhelm Steenkamp joins from the Bulls and will add much needed depth to the pack, whilst the introduction of out-of-favour Lions fly-half Earl Rose will provide cover for the incumbent No.10 Naas Olivier.
The strength of the Cheetahs will again be their back-row, with Springboks Juan Smith and Heinrich Brussouw as the chief protagonists. However, they will be missing Brussouw until mid-March, which could have a major impact on their form early on in the season. Their speed out wide is another exciting feature of this team, with Springbok paceman, Jongi Nokwe teaming up with other exciting winger Lionel Mapoe, added to that by their two new recruits.
The Cheetahs will be a competitive team this season if all their players remain fit, but with the expansion of Super Rugby to fifteen teams plus the added amount of fixtures, it is their lack of quality in depth that will be cause for concern amongst the coaching staff. There are a lot of hurdles facing this side, but they have the character and ability in their squad to achieve a mid-table finish.
Star man - Juan Smith: The Springbok flanker proved his worth to his country after returning for his team's Autumn Internationals, and provided the momentum that was missing in his absence in South Africa's abysmal Tri-Nations series. As Captain and chief ball carrier for the Cheetahs, they will need the big man to be at his best throughout the competition, and hopefully remain injury-free too.
Young player to watch - Robert Ebersohn: The 21-year-old made his name in the seven man format, where he's been a mainstay in Paul Treu's team. Having represented SA under 20, he debuted in last years' competition at outside centre. Just like all Seven's players, he possesses great pace and a keen eye for a gap, added to that his physical tenacity around the field and you have a very promising player for the future.
Much has changed behind the scenes for what has been Super rugby's perennial whipping boys.
Changes in the upper echelons of the franchise has allowed for a rejuvenation to take place on the field.
Down in large part to the introduction of ex-Western Force coach John Mitchell, the Lions form in the Currie Cup has pleased many. After a winless campaign in last year's Super 14, very little will be expected from the Johannesburg-based team. The element of surprise will definitely be on their side.
Their failure in previous years has been their defensive record, which leaked in 545 points last season, 165 points more than any other team. Mitchell has inherited a very young team with much potential. Their enthusiasm in attack cannot be faulted, participating in Super rugby's highest total scoring match when they lost 72-65 to the Chiefs last year.
So often has this gung-ho manner in attack proven their downfall. It will be his job to tighten the reigns occasionally, to ensure a more structured approach is taken, which hopefully will result in more consistent performances.
Mitchell's teams have always been superbly conditioned outfits, and with the introduction of Kiwi fitness guru Andrew Taylor, expect the Lions to go the full 8 80 minutes this year. They will be a bit more structured than previous years, and with young players like Elton Jantjies coming into their second full Super Rugby season, a calmer less frantic approach might be in store.
This need for experience has been identified by the coaching staff and they've acted accordingly. Springbok fly-half Andre Pretorius joins Rory Kockott and Waylon Murray from the Sharks, added to that by Springbok flanker Bandise Maku from the Bulls. If these players have the desired effect, the Lions will be a much more competitive force this year. The 'wooden spoon' could likely find a new recipient this season.
Star man - Jano Vermaak: The highly underrated scrum-half is pivotal to the Lions game. He will be expected to guide and provide his young fly-half Jantjies with quality ball, something we have come to expect from the No.9. However, it is his sniping breaks around the breakdown and excellent support play in broken field that sets him apart from his competitors. If the Lions pack can assert themselves, Vermaak's intelligence will provide much needed momentum for his team.
Young player to watch - Elton Jantjies: Under the guidance of former All Blacks playmaker Carlos Spencer, now backs coach of the Lions, Jantjies has begun to reveal the promise he showed when playing for SA U20. His inclusion in the Springbok squad for their end of year tour to the UK was met with approval from all circles. Given time under the tutelage of Spencer, Jantjies has the skill set to be a contender for the Springbok No.10 jersey.
As the current holders of South Africa's domestic competition, much is expected from one of Super Rugby's most popular brands. Their form in the second half of last year's competition won them seven of their last eight games and provided the momentum to secure a second Currie Cup title in three years.
In a newly-designed Super Rugby format, whereby each team will play four local derbies home and away, the Sharks domestic form suggests that they would be favourites amongst the SA teams to secure that automatic qualifying spot.
Coach John Plumtree's team has a fine blend of youth and experience, and after a successful off-season has recruited wisely, securing the services of ex- Blue Bulls fly-half Jacques Louis Potgieter, Springbok centre Meyer Bosman and young Stormers scrum-half Conrad Hoffman. These players are added to the likes of Lions full-back Louis Ludik and Stormers lock Ross Skeate, who joined during the Currie Cup campaign.
Plumtree's team has never lacked in work ethic and one can expect this dogged defiance to be revealed most clearly in their defensive capabilities. This strength owes much to the physical nature of their pack, who in attack as well will provide ample ball for their half-backs to play.
Undoubtedly the Sharks ability to succeed will rest primarily in the hands of their inexperienced half-back duo of Charl McCleod and Potgieter, who based on their current form are proving worthy of their position.
With few stars and many unsung heroes, this is a team that can grind out results, and with an impressive record overseas it could be a successful season for the Durban based franchise.
Star man - Bismarck Du Plessis: The Springbok hooker is the spearhead of his team's physical assault on the opposition. His mobility and physical presence around the field is seldom matched. His uncompromising nature however, is often likely to boil over, resulting in suspensions. If the Sharks can curtail such outbursts, few will match him physically this year.
Young player to watch - Patrick Lambie: His meteoric rise from schoolboy protégé to fully capped Springbok international was completed in this year's autumn internationals, where for a debutant, seemed at ease in the Green and Gold. His man of the match performance in this year's Currie Cup final suggests he is a player who can handle the big occasion. Equally adept at playing full-back or fly-half, the former being his most likely position for this year's campaign, Lambie has all the makings of a future Springbok star.
Last year's beaten finalists will be looking for a similar campaign that saw them produce some of the season's most exciting rugby. They followed their Super 14 final defeat to the Bulls with another loss in the final of this year's Currie Cup, this time to the Sharks. What has clearly been labelled by many as the "chokers" team, the Stormers will see things very differently, and will be hoping that the lessons learnt from previous defeats will aid them in their upcoming season.
The strength of Allister Coetzee's team on paper lies with their backs. With Peter Grant they have an experienced fly-half who delivers unrivalled consistency in his performances. Exciting centre pairings of Springboks Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie and Juan de Jongh have pace to burn, and with Bryan Habana, Gio Aplon and Conrad Jantjes making up the back three, you have what resembles a very formidable backline.
However, what will be worrying Coetzee the most, is whether they will all be ready for the start of the competition. Grant may miss the start of the campaign as he is still playing for Japanese outfit Kobe Steelers and can only return once his team has been knocked out of the play-offs. This could mean that the Stormers will be short of experience in the No.10 jersey, after having disposed with goal-kicking ace, Willem de Waal to Italy. This could result in a surprise start for the Pumas and ex-Boland fly-half Elgar Watts, who had an excellent Currie Cup season.
Watt burst on the scene this year where he scored a sublime hat-trick against the Leopards in their 37-32 victory in the Currie Cup this year. Coetzee no doubt drafted the youngster in as back-up to Peter Grant, but might find himself using him more than what was initially expected.
The Stormers pack is underrated, and is often outshone by the names of their back counterparts. But the former's success is relies heavily upon this hard working and skilful group of forwards.
They have a solid front row consisting of Brok Harris, Tiaan Liebenberg and Springbok, CJ van der Linde. Although Liebenberg will be injured for eight weeks, you can rely on a steady scrum from the front row. In Andries Bekker you have an accomplished line-out leader and skilled ball player, a man who is already being groomed to overtake Matfield's position when he steps down from international rugby.
Finally what links their backs effectively to this pack is the dynamism of their back-row. Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw offer the complete package of what is required from a back row. Experience, power and energy. All of which these three have in abundance.
With the likely loss of Grant and Aplon for the start of the season, and the eight-week delay until Liebenberg's return, expect the Stormers to warm into this year's competition. A strong finish is most likely, and with all their star performers fit and fighting, it could be another exciting year for the Cape Town-based franchise.
Star man - Jaque Fourie: Often underrated in world rugby, Fourie has proven year in, year out, that he is one of the world's best centres. Blessed with extreme pace, he seems to swerve and manoeuvre his way around defences with ease. He has a tremendous engine and is notorious for many try-saving tackles. The Stormers attack will evolve much around his attacking ability, which is more often than not, a safe bet for creating momentum.
Young player to watch - Nick Koster: The 21-year-old flanker/eighth man is highly-rated by the Stormers. He made his debut at 19 in the Currie Cup in 2008, and such was his impact that he was called up to the Barbarians squad in the International against Australia at Wembley later that year. Has serious pace for a back-row, which was confirmed when he started as wing in his debut for the Stormers two years ago. Has recovered from a serious knee injury, and will be looking forward to a full season of Super Rugby this time out.