South Africa gears up for Super 14 assault
January 18, 2010
Will former All Black fly-half Carlos Spencer prove a profitable signing for the Lions? © Getty Images
Peter De Villiers Bakkies Botha Heinrich Brussow Schalk Burger Fourie du Preez Jaque Fourie Bryan Habana Victor Matfield John Smit Juan Smith Carlos Spencer Morne Steyn
On the eve of the new Super 14 season, our South African correspondent Stephen Nell assesses the chances of his country's franchises.
They're always over-hyped, but the arrival of Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie may well see the Cape-based outfit deliver on their promise in 2010. Much was expected last year after an impressive 2008, but a host of injuries and poor tactical decisions by the coaching staff - they started the season running from all positions on the field and ended in a conservative dead end - put paid to their hopes. Allister Coetzee will coach them this year, though Rassie Erasmus is still very much hands on as a senior professional coach (read director of rugby) in the background.
Western Province's successful Currie Cup campaign inspires confidence, though the quality of the opposition in South Africa's domestic competition is questionable. As such, one would not like to offer too many bold predictions about what the impressive front row of Wicus Blaauw, Tiaan Liebenberg and Brock Harris will be able to achieve against Australia and New Zealand's best. Habana and Fourie will provide serious gas among the three-quarters, while they have proven quality up front in lock Andries Bekker, hooker Liebenberg and flanker Schalk Burger.
A new kid on the block to look out for is centre Juan de Jongh, who made his Springbok debut on South Africa's end-of-season tour. The key question is whether they have the depth in the front row to carry them all the way through.
They've lost Bryan Habana to the Stormers, but that should not prevent them from mounting a strong challenge. Superstar that Habana is, he was part of a brilliant system and never a one-man show. They have a quite brilliant lineout headed by Victor Matfield, while the halfback pairing of Fourie du Preez and Morné Steyn was a dominant force on the world stage last year. Even so, the champions could struggle to replicate their success of 2009.
Springbok lock Bakkies Botha will be missing for a large chunk of their campaign, while they are also unlikely to have their fortress of Loftus Versfeld available should they make it to the semi-finals as it is a venue for the soccer World Cup. The big factor in their favour is their winning culture. They were outplayed by Western Province in last year's Currie Cup semi-final at Newlands, but the winning habit proved decisive and Steyn landed a magnificent kick to carry them into a home final.
One major concern is their scrum. It's traditionally a strength, but was badly exposed in the Currie Cup. They simply don't have quality at tighthead prop. Steyn also started showing signs of exhaustion on South Africa's end-of-season tour. He and Fourie were both overplayed last year, so hopefully they last the distance.
The year started with a mammoth setback when Argentine fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez was ruled out for the entire campaign with an injury. Hernandez did nothing hugely impressive in the Currie Cup and one never got the impression his arrival was money well spent, but the injury has left coach John Plumtree in a bit of a quandary and looking for a new No 10. Ruan Pienaar is, of course, an option, but is also struggling with an injury and the Sharks may start their campaign with Monty Dumond at fly-half. And, even when Pienaar is available, it's a well-known fact that he prefers to play scrum-half rather than the position Springbok coach Peter de Villiers earmarked for him in the national set-up.
The Sharks' biggest strength is the quality of depth they have available in their front row through the likes of John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis and Deon Carstens. But Smit and Bismarck du Plessis were seriously overplayed last year and are courting injuries on their current course. New signings Louis Ludik (fullback/wing) and Willem Alberts (No.8/flanker) should add a lot of value, though they are still engaged in contractual disputes with the Lions similar to the one that eventually saw Jaque Fourie released to move to Western Province.
Last year they had the worst draw imaginable and it showed on the log. However, they still managed victories over the Crusaders and Sharks, proving that you can never write them off in one-off games. History also shows that they are never a factor in Super Rugby and the reason for this is quite simple - they spend as much time and energy as other major unions into contracting and developing the cream of South Africa's young talent, but don't have the financial muscle to hang onto them.
Griquas' impressive form in the Currie Cup, together with the Cheetahs' run to the final, suggests that there is more depth than usual. Keep an eye out for Springbok sevens star Robert Ebersohn and winger Bjorn Basson as newcomers among the backs. They also have some decent front-row forwards with the likes of Wian du Preez, Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss and WP Nel. Heinrich Brüssow and Juan Smith also provide proven class at loose forward. All in all, it looks promising for the Cheetahs to have their best season for some time, though a lack of real star quality all round means it's still unlikely to make them contenders.
The once proud union is stuttering and they have bled their best players due to loopholes in their contracts. Star men such Jaque Fourie, Willem Alberts and Louis Ludik have all decided that they have had enough. It is believed that improvements are on the cards with former Springbok lock Kevin de Klerk having been installed as president of the Golden Lions Rugby Union, but it may take time.
Dick Muir's appointment as coach should also inspire confidence, but the Springbok assistant coach does not have much quality in the playing ranks at his disposal. The signing of former All Black fly-half Carlos Spencer on a reported expensive two-year contract is indicative of a desperate recruitment policy. They've also brought in injury prone Springbok wing Tonderai Chavhanga and Blue Bulls castaway No.10 Burton Francis. The better signings are probably the Griquas duo of loose forward Jonathan Mokuena and lock Jacques Lombaard. They could be strong in the front row with Heinke van der Merwe and Kevin Buys as props, but generally there's just not enough quality. They may well finish rock bottom.
Stephen Nell is a rugby correspondent for the Die Burger newspaper