Preview: Super Rugby 2013
The new Super Rugby season is once again upon us as fifteen sides get ready to slug it out for the honour of being crowned champions of arguably the toughest tournament in the southern hemisphere.
Once again, competition this year will be fierce - especially from the South African franchises - as the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls bid to top the SA Conference and make their passage to the finals a wee bit easier.
Always the bridesmaid but never the bride, the Sharks will want to go one better this season having lost out at the final hurdle four times. Indeed, last year's finalists are the most successful Super Rugby franchise never to have won the title. The Sharks have, in recent years, lived in the shadow of the Bulls (courtesy of their three titles) and the Stormers (two-time South African Conference champions), after being the best performer early in the tournament’s history. But based on their impressive late run to last year's final, we have a funny feeling that's all about to change.
The Stormers will know better than anyone to be wary of the Sharks, after losing to their coastal rivals at home in the semi-finals. It was a bitter pill to swallow after doing all the hard work to make sure of home ground advantage, only to blow it for a second year running. Will it be third time lucky then for the men from the Cape? The Stormers may not know how to win in finals, but they sure know how to reach them. And with the Bok-laden squad boosted by the arrival of three more Springboks in the form of Jaco Taute, Elton Jantjies and Pat Cilliers, they certainly have enough big name players to help take them all the way.
The Bulls - the only South African franchise to win Super Rugby silverware - could be the dark horses for a fourth title. They weren't given much of a chance last season, but still managed to make the play-offs - albeit unconvincingly - without their legendary Springboks. This time, the squad will be older and wiser as a result of their trials and tribulations. Coach Frans Ludeke has also had the luxury of retaining the bulk of last year's team, which - based on their pre-season results - looks as strong as ever. The Bulls should finish in the top three in the SA conference and could once again make the play-offs, provided they fire on all cylinders consistently.
Everyone's second-favourite team, the Cheetahs, have had a terrible start to the season before a single tackle has been made. The return and loss of veteran flank Juan Smith is a cruel blow that coach Naka Drotske could have done without. Armoured with only a few Springboks, the Cheetahs must now soldier on without him as they also wait on Heinrich Brussow's return. Injuries aside, they still have the ability and talent to make them competitive but their lack of depth could leave the Cheetahs struggling.
And last but not least, the Kings. It has been a long battle to see the Eastern Cape province join Super Rugby. Their application to join in 2011 was rejected in favour of the Rebels so that the competition had an even split between the three member countries. However they were finally granted permission to join at the expense of the Lions in August 2012. The big question now on everyone's lips is not how many games the Kings will lose, but by how much. With only a sprinkling of experience on the field, Super Rugby's newest addition are destined for the final place in the South African conference and overall log.
Looking at the New Zealand conference, and it's incredibly hard to pick a winner as the Chiefs bid to retain the title they won for the first time last season.
The seven-time champion Crusaders will be out for revenge - having gone yet another year without silverware - while the Highlanders have recruited well in the off-season. The Blues, playing under a new coach, will also be out to make amends following last year's nightmare campaign.
Once again flying the flag for Australia will be the Jake White-coached Brumbies and the Reds, while the Waratahs will be determined to recapture their form that was last seen going down their stadium toilet in 2011. On paper, the Rebels have one of the most formidable sides Down Under and much is expected from the likes of James O'Connor, Kurtley Beale and Scott Higginbotham. As for the Force, it's anyone's guess how the men from the west will perform without the likes of Nathan Sharpe (retired) and David Pocock (Brumbies) fighting in their corner this season.
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