Bulls set to fly the flag for SA in Super 14
February 1, 2007
South African hopes are pinned on the Bulls for success in this year's Super 14.
With the leading All Blacks resting for the first seven weeks of the competition, South Africa believe that it can finally be their year in a competition that has always discriminated against them because of heavy travel schedules.
The Crusaders are still the favourites, but the Bulls are a formidable side and having reached the semifinals in the last two seasons, could be ready to take a step up.
Heyneke Meyer's men have the benefits of continuity and depth.
Springbok enforcer Bakkies Botha will be absent for the first few weeks of the competition.
However, the Bulls have their pick of powerful locks such as Danie Rossouw and Francois van Schouwenburg to assist Victor Matfield in the second row.
They will also be without Springbok loose forward sensation Pierre Spies for the first four weeks.
However, the fearsome Bulls pack can generate momentum that makes them virtually unstoppable.
They also have a decent backline, with centre Wynand Olivier, and the Springbok wing duo of Bryan Habana and Akona Ndungane, giving them running options.
At halfback they are well-served by IRB player-of-the-year nominee Fourie du Preez, while flyhalf Derick Hougaard's boot will keep the scoreboard ticking.
They don't have a favourable draw and much will depend on how they travel, but this may just be their year.
The Sharks, led by Springbok captain John Smit, look like potential dark horses.
Word from Durban is that John Plumtree has made a huge difference as forwards coach and they mauled the Cheetahs' powerful pack in a pre-season friendly.
There is a crop of talented young players coming through the ranks in Durban, with flank Keegan Daniel, centre Brad Barritt and fullback JP Pietersen players to keep an eye on.
Scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar will look to build on last year's impressive campaign. The tight five also looks imposing, with Springbok tighthead BJ Botha in the front row, and internationals such as Johann Muller, Albert van den Berg and Johann Ackerman to choose from at lock.
The Stormers, as always, have plenty of individual talent and there are high expectations after a young Western Province side impressed in last year's Currie Cup.
Coach Kobus van der Merwe now has the benefit of blending the best of his juniors with internationals such as centre Jean de Villiers, wing Breyton Paulse, flank Schalk Burger and No 8 Joe van Niekerk.
Burger is making his comeback after a career-threatening neck injury and has looked as energetic as ever in pre-season.
He will be closely watched by the national selectors as he will be instrumental in South Africa's World Cup campaign.
However, they are not yet a settled team and a mid-table finish looks likely.
The Cheetahs have fared brilliantly on the South African domestic scene over the past two years, but could struggle in the Super 14.
They don't have as much natural talent as the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers, but Rassie Erasmus's brilliant coaching ensures that the sum is greater than the parts.
Key lock Barend Pieterse has, however, sustained a serious foot injury and they could struggle against good New Zealand and Australian opposition.
The Lions looked paper thin in terms of depth, with the only notable signing that of Springbok loose forward Jacques Cronje.
They have, however, lost workhorse skipper Wikus van Heerden, as well as Springbok utility back Conrad Jantjes, who has joined the Stormers.
Sadly, the name change from Cats to Lions won't do anything for them other than establish a new identity and they could find themselves in familiar territory at the bottom of the log.
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Top 14, Super Rugby and the Aviva Premiership with fireworks and monsters both featuring
Firdose Moonda looks at the moves towards greater integration within South African rugby ... and what the future holds
It is 100 years this week since the last international match played in Europe before the outbreak of World War One. Rewind remembers the fixture's longest-living survivor
Martin Gillingham looks ahead to what he believes is the most remarkable ever climax to the league phase of the Top 14