Currie Cup 2013 Preview
On the eve of the Currie Cup season, SARugby.com takes a look at which of the teams will be there or thereabouts and the men to watch in 2013.
Free State Cheetahs
The men from Bloemfontein can only improve on last year's showing in this competition. The Cheetahs finished at the bottom of the standings in 2012, which meant they were forced to face the Eastern Province in a promotion/relegation play-off which they won comfortably in the end.
With the help of their neighbours, Griquas, they gave their best performance yet in Super Rugby history and will be keen to build on that showing. The Cheetahs' biggest strength is their ability to combine the excellent platform which their forwards set with their backline's attacking skills.
With first-choice props Coenie Oosthuizen and Trevor Nyakane on Rugby Championship duty with the Springboks, coach Naka Drotske has done well to bring back former Bok front-rower Wian du Preez after a four-year spell at Munster. Apart from their two props, the Cheetahs will also be without the services of talismanic captain Adriaan Strauss who is also on duty with the Springboks for large parts of their campaign.
They have also managed to secure the services of another former Bok, speedster Tonderai Chavhanga, who returns to South Africa after a two-year spell with the Dragons in Wales.
Their successful Super Rugby campaign will give them confidence as they head into the Currie Cup so don't be surprised if they make a huge improvement on their 2012 showing in this competition.
The Durban-based outfit's form in this season's tournament will be interesting to watch as they have undergone a transformation in the boardroom and on the coaching front.
Former Sharks and Springbok captain John Smit is their new CEO and he has moved swiftly to replace John Plumtree as coach. This after Plumtree's services were terminated shortly before the end of the Super Rugby tournament.
Former Springbok centre Brendan Venter is the Durban-based union's new director of rugby while ex-Sharks loose-forward Brad MacLeod-Henderson will be the head coach during the Currie Cup.
Experienced loose forwards like captain Keegan Daniel and Jean Deysel, and the newly recruited former Bok lock Marco Wentzel are expected to set the example up front alongside backline stalwarts like Butch James, Odwa Ndungane and Lwazi Mvovo. James is in the twighlight of his career and if he can control his temper, and direct wel, the Sharks have a chance to improve on last year's effort when they were runners-up.
A player keen to make an impact is Tim Whitehead, who spent the entire Super Rugby campaign on the sidelines with a broken wrist. Whitehead joined the Sharks from Western Province in 2012 and was making great strides before sustaining his injury. He will be keen to impress his new coaches.
As defending champions, the men from the Cape will be under tremendous pressure from their fanatical home supporters to retain their title.
Coach Allister Coetzee's decision to blood several youngsters in last season's tournament reaped rewards when they beat the Sharks, against the odds, in the final in Durban.
With a large crop of inexperienced players, the men from the Cape win their first major trophy in 11 years and most of them will be expected to repeat those efforts again this year.
Senior players like Deon Fourie, De Kock Steenkamp and Gio Aplon will lead the charge while stalwarts like Eben Etzebeth, Jean de Villiers, Juan de Jongh, Duane Vermeulen and Siya Kolisi will be on Springbok duty during the Rugby Championship.
Goal-kicking ace Demetri Catrakilis and Fourie are players to keep an eye on. Catrakilis played a leading role in last year's victory before impressing for the Kings in Super Rugby.
As captain, Fourie also played a huge role in the 2012 success and he will be expected to lead from the front again during this year's campaign. Traditionally a hooker, Fourie will play on the flank in the Currie Cup after shining in that role during the Stormers' Super Rugby campaign.
The Stormers received heavy criticism for their defensive style of play but last year's title was secured thanks to a mixture of that fine defence and some attacking skills. More of the latter can be expected this year again.
Coetzee's experience - he's the only one from the tournament's six coaches who has held the trophy aloft - will also be important in the defence of their title.
The Pretoria-based union are in a rebuilding phase as several of their high profile players have left for greener pastures. Losing the services of players like Juandre Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dewald Potgieter, Jacques Potgieter, Morne Steyn, Jano Vermaak and Wynand Olivier will be a blow but the Bulls are arguably the side with greatest depth in their ranks.
They have a production line of players coming through their feeder teams and one of their strengths is that all their sides play a similar style of rugby. This means that most of the union's younger players know how to fit into the system which has brought their senior side so much success in recent years.
They will also be minus the services of several Springboks on Rugby Championship duty, as well as injured back-rowers Pierre Spies and Arno Botha, but don't write off South Africa's most successful union in the professional era.
In Pine Pienaar they have a young and ambitious coach who has been at the helm for a couple of seasons now. They also have an ace up their sleeve in former Springbok lock Victor Matfield who will be their forwards coach. Matfield's experience and astute rugby brain will be an asset and he will certainly improve their line-out work.
As with previous campaigns, they will rely heavily on their forwards to dominate while young fly-half Handre Pollard will be expected to pull the strings with his boot amongst the backs.
The Lions are on a high after edging out the Kings in their promotion/relegation play-off and will be determined to reclaim their place amongst South Africa's elite.
The 2011 champions and 2012 semi-finalists will be out to prove that their spell in the wilderness - during the Super Rugby tournament - is well and truly over. The Johannesburg-based union's success could depend on how Springbok fly-half Elton Jantjies performs.
Jantjies became a Springbok after shining for the Lions at Currie Cup and Super Rugby levels but his star seemed to wane during a loan spell at the Stormers during this season's Super Rugby tournament.
The pivot delivered several indifferent performances during his spell in Cape Town but seemed to find his mojo in helping the Lions see off the Kings over two legs in that promotion/relegation battle.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann deserves plenty of credit for holding his team together during 2013. Despite being relatively inexperienced, Ackermann has done well to secure his side's Super Rugby status and will be keen to enhance his reputation in the Currie Cup.
The Lions enjoy an expansive game-plan where forwards and backs link well. Apart from Jantjies, other players who are expected to impress is the loose forward duo of Warren Whiteley and Derrick Minnie.
Griquas were the surprise package in 2012. They held their own against the tournament's heavyweights and were in contention for a semi-final berth, until the final round, but a defeat to the Sharks ended their fairytale and they had to be satisfied with fifth spot on the points table.
They will, however be without the services of their best player, Willie le Roux, who will feature for the Springboks in the Rugby Championship.