Our picks of the 2010 Super 14

If the Super 12 was the era of theCrusaders, who won five of its 10 editions, Super 14 rugby belonged to South Africa’s Bulls, who were crowned champions on Saturday for the third time in five years.

As rugby approaches the era of the Super 15, little suggests South Africa’s pre-eminence in the southern hemisphere provincial tournament is about to wane, or that the changed structure – with a fifth Australian team and the division of the competition into three conferences – will break that dominance.

New Zealand teams won the Super 12 eight of 10 times, denied a clean sweep by the 2001 and 2004 victories of the Brumbies from Australia’s capital, Canberra.

The era of the Pretoria-based Bulls was foreshadowed when they reached the semifinals in 2005, the last year of the Super 12.

That was the first of five top-four appearances in six years and a precursor to their titles in 2007, 2009 and this year, two of which came from all-South African finals.

The Bulls lost only three matches in each of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, scored 435 points in 2009 and 500 in 2010, making them the most prolific of any winners.

Springboks flyhalf Morne Steyn ended the season with 263 points, smashing the individual points-scoring record of New Zealand’s Dan Carter.

Everything about the Bulls’ back-to-back title successes in 2009 and 2010 appeared to be dynasty-building. They are not yet a team at its peak, nor yet threatened with retirements which might unravel the skein of their success. There has however been talk of players leaving for other unions.

The Bulls scored almost 40 points per game throughout the season, quashing criticism that they, indeed all South African teams, are one-dimensional.

They and other South African teams adapted more quickly than Australian or New Zealand sides to new rule interpretations at the breakdown, destroying any impression that South African style is less innovative.

The Bulls had exceptional depth, the lack of which damaged the chances of the Australian sides and may be exacerbated by the addition of a fifth Australian club. They were superb in rugby’s fundamentals, where the New Zealand sides showed most deficiency.

The Bulls were outstanding across the field but the crucial combinations of locks Victor Matfield and Danie Rossouw, scrumhalf Fourie du Preez and flyhalf Morne Steyn, backrowers Pierre Spies and Deon Stegmann, and centers Wynand Olivier and Jaco Pretorius gave them islands of strength.

Coach Frans Ludeke was also an integral part of the Bulls success, having built on the foundation left by the team’s first championship-winning coach Heyneke Meyer.

“One day we’ll be able to look back and have a full appreciation for what we’ve achieved,” Ludeke said.

“I’m so proud of the team because in this competition you have to be up for every game or you will be outplayed. The pressure associated with that is huge and to win it in those circumstances is special.”

The Cape Town-based Stormers were only just inferior to the Bulls. They developed the best defense in the tournament while accentuating the attacking ability of players such as Springboks winger Bryan Habana.

They were possibly the best team in the competition through the first half of the season but their form faded and their 25-17 loss to the Bulls in the weekend final revealed a gulf in experience.

The Bulls’ win has helped endow the Springboks with favoritism in this year’s Tri-Nations tournament.

When they first won the tournament in 2007, New Zealand won the Tri-Nations but South Africa won the World Cup. Last year when the Bulls won the Super 14, the Springboks also convincingly won the Tri-Nations.

The Super 14 season was highlighted for Australia by the unexpected rise of the Reds.

The Reds had finished 13th in 2009, 12th in 2008 and last i

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