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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.
Super Rugby
Usual suspects eye Super Rugby glory
Stephen Nell
February 21, 2012
The Golden Lions' Butch James embraces the Currie Cup, Golden Lions v Natal Sharks, Currie Cup Final, Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, October 29, 2011
Can the Lions transfer their Currie Cup form onto the Super Rugby stage? © Getty Images
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Tournaments/Tours: Super Rugby

South Africa's top rugby players have everything to prove following the appointment of Heyneke Meyer as Springboks coach. The tournament will break in June to allow for incoming tours from the northern hemisphere, with the huge carrot of playing England dangling in front of South Africans.

The Sharks, Stormers and Bulls appear the best-placed South African sides in Super Rugby, but don't write off the Cheetahs' ability to knock over a few big teams.

Here is our overview of South Africa's teams:

Stormers

The old adage goes that attack wins matches, but defence takes tournaments. In that case the Stormers are well-placed to build on last year's South African conference win and home semi-final.

Notwithstanding all the gamebreakers they have at the back, they have for the past two seasons defended exceptionally well, conceding only 17 tries in the league phase of 2010 and 18 in the extended league format in 2011. Defence coach Jacques Nienaber must indeed be one of the most sought-after coaching assistants in the game based on those statistics.

However, it should be noted that the Stormers have lost two of their key men. Centre Jaque Fourie, who marshalled the defence on the field, is playing in Japan, while star flank Francois Louw is now at Bath. Fourie's departure will nevertheless give young Springbok centre Juan de Jongh scope to shine next to Jean de Villiers. There is also a terrific emerging loose forward talent in Siya Kolisi.

One major concern is the lack of depth in the front row. They have exceptional young props coming through in Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe, but it will probably still be a season or two before they mature.

Given the high-profile departures, it will probably be hard for the Stormers to replicate what they achieved in 2010 and 2011. However, they should be there or thereabouts come the play-offs and who knows from thereon in.

Bulls

How does a side find its feet after losing top Springboks such as Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Gurthrö Steenkamp and Fourie du Preez? Apart from the retiring Matfield, the other four are following the money trail overseas, with Botha and Steenkamp in France, and Rossouw and Du Preez in Japan.

Given that four of the high-profile players who have moved on are in the pack, it's obvious that a franchise renowned for its power play has a challenge on its hands to mould a new generation into the same fearsome unit. The raw material is there nevertheless, with bruiser lock Flip van der Merwe now able to take over Botha's No 4 jersey and Juandré Kruger having to deal with the pressure of being Matfield's replacement.

Du Preez is not the kind of player you can simply replace, but the Bulls probably have the pick of South Africa's scrumhalf talent in both Francois Hougaard and Jano Vermaak. Hougaard, as we saw at the World Cup in New Zealand, is also very dangerous on the wing.

No.8 Pierre Spies will captain the side following Matfield's departure, while the Bulls have done well to poach two emerging backline talents in centre Johann Sadie and wing JJ Engelbrecht from the Stormers. It will be a transitional year, but not necessarily a painful one.

Sharks

The Sharks may well be South Africa's team to watch this year. Springbok captain John Smit has moved on to Saracens, but this means that there is less pressure on coach John Plumtree to hold back the robust Bismarck du Plessis at hooker.

Du Plessis had plenty of opportunities for the Sharks last year, but the situation regarding him and Smit was an uncomfortable talking point at provincial and international level for too long.

French international Frederic Michalak gives the Sharks a world class option at scrumhalf, while Patrick Lambie can now step into a role at fly-half and have the opportunity to display his quality there consistently.

Coach John Plumtree has been experimenting with Bok wing JP Pietersen at outside centre in the pre-season to boost his midfield. Cheetahs fullback Riaan Viljoen, who has a similar ability to Frans Steyn to kick long-range penalties, has come on board with veteran Stefan Terblance no longer in the mix.

It's up front where the Sharks look particularly imposing, even if they head into the tournament with Beast Mtawarira on the injury list. Du Plessis will pack down next to brother Jannie in the front row, while there are bruising ball-carriers in loose forwards Willem Alberts and Jean Deysel. They have experienced depth, so probably start as favourites to win the South African conference.

Cheetahs

Considering the fact that they always have to live within strict financial means, the Cheetahs are actually a remarkably competitive side.

The conference system suits them. They are capable of knocking over any other South African team on their day and have nurtured the immense talent of 19-year-old flyhalf Johan Goosen. His step up into a regional tournament against the pick of what Australia and New Zealand have to offer will be watched with great excitement. Commit the name to memory now. Goosen will compete with Sias Ebersohn for the No 10 jersey and the Cheetahs look a side that can benefit hugely from a running game.

They will be competitive up front. It's time for giant young prop Coenie Oosthuizen to come of age, while loose forwards Heinrich Brüssow, Juan Smith and Ashley Johnson can be a formidable combination.

Coach Naka Drotské does not have much quality at lock, but as a coach has proved adept at getting the best out of what is at his disposal. The Cheetahs should not be considered contenders, but they may well make the odd dent into a bigger team's campaign.

Lions

There are higher hopes than usual for the Lions as they enter the tournament on the back of a Currie Cup triumph and have since evolved under the astute coaching of John Mitchell.

What got lost in the emotion of the Currie Cup triumph is that it was achieved in a World Cup year. In other words, all South Africa's top sides had to cope without their star players for most of the campaign, while the Lions could field a side with little disruption as they had deteriorated to a point of making a modest contribution to the Springboks in terms of player resources.

Notwithstanding the Mitchell-influence, this may be a season in which they are found out. The province is debt-ridden and no longer able to compete for the best players in the market. It's not that they are without talent, but there is just not enough of it and little back-up.

Fullback Jaco Taute, flyhalf Elton Jantjies, flank Josh Strauss and prop JC Janse van Rensburg are nevertheless talents to keep an eye on. Jantjies struggled in his first year of Super Rugby, but this may well be the tournament in which he steps up and lays down his challenge for the Bok No 10 jumper.

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