Super 14 will test South African strength

Super 14’s new season which begins Friday could help determine whether South Africa’s dominance of world rugby can be sustained or was a one-year wonder.


South Africa provided both teams in last year’s Super 14 championship match – the Bulls beat the Sharks in the final – and the Springboks went on to win the sixth World Cup in France.


Change has overtaken South African rugby since.

 

Many experienced players took those victories as a signal to retire from international rugby and are now seeing out their careers in Britain and France.

The champion Bulls, based in Pretoria, will be attempting to make its fourth straight semifinals appearance. It has lost its influential captain, Victor Matfield, and its winning coach Heyneke Meyer.


Meyer has quit rugby and the team is now in the charge of Frans Ludeke who had four unsuccessful years as coach of the Cats.

 

Matfield, like many of the top South African players of last season, is now playing in France.

Hooker Gary Botha has also left South Africa while several key players, including Springboks Bryan Habana and Bakkies Botha, will start the season with injuries. The worst injury concern for the Bulls surrounds international loose forward Pierre Spies, who is being treated for clots on the lungs.


The Sharks have also gone through a period of rapid change. World Cup Springboks Percy Montgomery and John Smits are now playing overseas but Frederik Michalak, who was a member of the French team which reached the World Cup semifinals, has joined the franchise.


He adds strength and experience to a squad which already includes players such as A.J. Venter, J.P. Pietersen, Ruan Pienaar and Francois Steyn.


The Sharks have been labeled the strongest of the South African franchises.


“I’d put my money on the Sharks finishing in the top two,” former Springboks coach Gert Smal told Johannesburg’s Sunday Independent.


“There’s a lot of versatility in the team.” The Stormers have a new coach in former Springbok Rassie Erasmus and are confident of a better showing than last year, when they finished 10th.


“I’m very optimistic that we’re on track,” Erasmus said. “The new signings (including prop Brian Mujati and lock Andriaan Fondse) are settling in well and there’s a good vibe.” The Australian and New Zealand franchises are under considerable pressure to perform after last year.


The New Zealanders confronted the first half of last season without their All Blacks, pulled out to take part in a World Cup preconditioning program, and struggled to improve later in the competition.


Australia’s New South Wales Waratahs and Queensland Reds finished at the bottom of the standings and former champions the ACT Brumbies missed the playoffs.


But the Western Force, under former All Blacks coach John Mitchell, had an outstanding second season.


“One of our strengths is that we are a lot more stable than other sides and have a bit more continuity,” Mitchell said.


The loss of Wallaby greats George Gregan and Stephen Larkham will hit the Brumbies hard.


“We will certainly miss their experience around the place,” coach Laurie Fisher said. “They were talented players for a long period of time so we are a little unsure how much it will affect us.” The Waratahs have signed league star Timana Tahu, who will start on the wing to help boost their backline strength.


“We weren’t happy with the season last year,” coach Ewen McKenzie said. “We’ve had a really good look at the nuts and bolts of the business. We are a far more settled team this year.”

 

The Crusaders, champions on six occasions in the Super 12 and 14, look the strongest of the New Zealand franchises with the return of most of their large All Blacks contingent, the signings of locks Ali Williams and Brad Thorn.

Coach

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