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Stephen Nell | Columnist Index
Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
South Africa's finest plot Super 14 assault
Stephen Nell
February 7, 2008

"It's going to be a tough act for the Bulls to follow. Not only are New Zealand's sides back to full strength, but the Bulls have lost stalwart coach Heyneke Meyer and captain Victor Matfield." Stephen Nell reports

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers has boldly declared that three South African teams could make this year's Super14 semifinals.

However, a closer examination reveals that De Villiers could be over-optimistic, with the Bulls under new coaching, the Sharks having lost a host of experienced stars, the Lions struggling with injuries and a shortage of talent, and the Stormers in a rebuilding phase.

Furthermore, there is the small matter that New Zealand will have their leading All Blacks available throughout the competition, which will make them a great deal more competitive.

Of course, it's not South Africa's fault that the Kiwis briefly took leave of their senses last year and they merely exploited the situation to their advantage. By the time New Zealand's stars hit their straps, the Sharks and Bulls had the benefit of momentum and crucial home ground advantage in the play-offs.

It was 2007 IRB player of the year Bryan Habana's last-gasp try and flyhalf Derick Hougaard's conversion that sealed an all-South African final in the Bulls' favour as they pipped the Ssharks 20-19 in Durban.

However, it's going to be a tough act for the Bulls to follow. Not only are New Zealand's sides back to full strength, but the Bulls have lost stalwart coach Heyneke Meyer and captain Victor Matfield.

The latter now plays his rugby in Toulon, while hooker Gary Botha has also moved north and fullback Johan Roets has retired.

The depth at lock has been further eroded by Francois van Schouwenburg joining Matfield at Toulon, Adriaan Fondse moving to the Stormers and Bakkies Botha struggling with an injury that could see him miss the first few weeks of the new season.

The most significant acquisition is that of exciting Griquas fullback Zane Kirchner, who looked a natural at lower levels of the game.

The Sharks perhaps offer South Africa's best chance of glory in this year's Super14, though they'll still be hard pressed to repeat last season's feat of making the final.

Springbok captain John Smit, flyhalf Butch James, fullback Percy Montgomery have all moved on, while loose forward Bob Skinstad has retired.

However, they have brought in French flyhalf Frederic Michalak and Tongan back Epi Taione, as well as Springbok tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis.

The squad is studded with class, with youngsters such as scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar and versatile back Frans Steyn giving them a formidable look.

Their resolve will be tested with a five-week tour, but they are decent semifinal contenders.

For a dark horse to sneak into the play-offs, look no further than the Stormers, though a finish in the top half of the table is perhaps a more realistic goal.

New coach Rassie Erasmus will make them a lot more streetwise and it's unlikely they'll be under-performers again as they have been every year since 2005.

Fondse, prop Brian Mujati, centre Gcobani Bobo and Springbok scrumhalf Ricky Januarie are the significant acquisitions.

Big names such as centres De Wet Barry and Marius Joubert, and loose forward Joe van Niekerk, have all moved on.

They may not possess the most talented squad, but will have some steal about them.

Springbok centre Jean de Villiers has been appointed captain in place of Luke Watson, who will be reinventing himself as a No 8.

The Cheetahs, as always, will be competitive given the ample young talent they have at their disposal, but it's a pity they can't hold onto their best players.

The reason for this is that they usually have to assemble a squad on a shoestring budget.

It's precisely that dynamic that frustrated Erasmus and he dedided to take on the challenge of coaching the Stormers.

New coach Naka Drotske, however, is also a shrewd operator and will benefit from a decent draw. They play three home games, followed by a tour of only four games.

Significant acquisitions include former Stormers wing Jongi Nokwe and Blue Bulls flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter.

However, they have lost a host of established players, with flyhalf Willem de Waal, Joubert, Du Plessis, scrumhalf Michael Claassens, lock Corniel van Zyl, centre Ronnie Cooke, and the two former Springbok props Os du Randt and Ollie le Roux all leaving.

Drotske will bank heavily on stars such as Springbok flank Juan Smith and prop CJ van der Linde, but they could be found out badly in terms of their depth.

For the Lions it could be another long season. Springbok flyhalf Andre Pretorius could miss the entire campaign through injury, while centre Jaque Fourie is confirmed out for the first few games.

Springbok No 8 Jacques Cronje has also moved to France, though they have replaced him with Joe van Niekerk, who is back in Johannesburg after his deal with Northampton collapsed.

Coach Loffie Eloff wants to crack the top half of the table, but it could be a task well beyond the Lions.

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