South African sides ready for Super 14 challenge
January 19, 2009
Will 2009 prove to be a big year for the Sharks' Francois Steyn? © Getty Images
Bakkies Botha Jean de Villiers Jannes Labuschagne Victor Matfield Percy Montgomery Johann Muller Ruan Pienaar John Smit Frans Steyn Ashwin Willemse
South Africa may just have the power to wrest the initiative from New Zealand in this year's Super 14 competition.
The Sharks were the lone South African representatives in last year's semi-finals, but consistency of coaching structures and player pools could assist the South African challenge.
In addition, the depth of playing resources in the country make them more capable of absorbing the blows of an exodus to the Northern Hemisphere than Australia and New Zealand.
John Plumtree took over as head coach after Dick Muir was promoted to the position of assistant coach at the Springboks and enjoyed immediate success in the Currie Cup. Their triumph on the domestic scene has inspired confidence and the addition of Bok skipper John Smit to their ranks will add another influential figure as they look to build on last year's third place.
Don't bet against them managing that as they have a favourable draw and not even the loss of experienced campaigners such as tighthead prop BJ Botha, inside centre Brad Barritt, French fly-half Frederic Michalak and utility forward AJ Venter has pulled their teeth. Michalak and Barritt's absence will allow a 10-12 combination of Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn to bloom, while Smit and Jannie du Plessis will share duties in the No.3 jersey.
Lock Johann Muller should continue to lead a side that includes Smit, which also points to a strong leadership core taking shape.
League legend Andrew Johns has assisted with their preparation, which shows they are prepared to think outside the box in their quest for success. It should be another fruitful season.
Points difference is all that stood between them and the play-offs last year. One more try in their final round-robin game - a 22-13 win over the Lions in Johannesburg - would have edged them into the semi-finals after a wretched start.
At full strength the Stormers, who campaign under the guise of Western Province in the Currie Cup, have not lost at their home fortress of Newlands since going down 0-22 to the Crusaders on February 29 last year.
Jean de Villiers emerged as an exceptional leader and they also won three out of four games on tour, suggesting they know how to win at home.
They have also added some talented and experienced players, notably with loose forward Duane Vermeulen joining from the Cheetahs, and fullback Percy Montgomery, fly-half Willem de Waal and utility forward AJ Venter added to the ranks.
On top of that there is the coaching guile of Rassie Erasmus and a management team that includes top rugby minds such as Brendan Venter and Gary Gold. Not even a wretched draw that includes a five-game Australasian tour will dampen enthusiasm in the Cape.
Springbok lock Victor Matfield's return should help stabilise a ship that hit stormy waters last year.
They were pitiful in their defence of the crown they won in 2007, but recovered well and coach Frans Ludeke appears to have things under control. Matfield and lock partner Bakkies Botha will provide the driving force in a tight five that aims at physical domination.
However, there's just a feeling that some of the key players are past their best, and even wing Bryan Habana is making headlines more often for links with Northern Hemisphere clubs rather than scoring tries.
They will be a good match for anybody at Loftus and have outstanding structures, which means they'll seldom be short on talent.
Ludeke's team is well capable of making the top half of the table, but you just don't get the feeling they are the force that they were under the coaching of Heyneke Meyer.
They are perennial under-achievers and last year's wooden spoonists.
They have a reasonable draw with away games against the Chiefs, Blues, Reds and Western Force. The question, however, is whether they have the talent in their ranks to make the most of it. The answer is probably no for a franchise feeling the pinch after years of under-achievement have left the terraces empty barring the times they are engaged in local derbies. The bottom half beckons … again!
They came close to pulling off a few surprise results last year, but it mostly ended in narrow defeats.
There were also times when their defence was poor and they took a few hidings. One victory in 12 defeats points to them simply not being good enough and they finished 13th. Whether things will go much better in 2009 is open to debate. They have lost two world class campaigners in versatile prop CJ van der Linde and loose forward Duane Vermeulen.
The gains have been modest with players such as centres Piet van Zyl and Corné Uys, who could not quite crack it at the Stormers.
It's difficult to see a significant improvement on the cards, particularly as they start with a plethora of away games that could knock the stuffing out of them early on.
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