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Preview: SA Conference

Fri, 15 Feb 2013 13:19
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No-one is giving the controversial debutants a chance
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We look at the five Super Rugby franchises that make up the South African Conference and expect the Stormers and Sharks to battle for top spot.

Bulls:

Coach:
Frans Ludeke
Captain: Pierre Spies
Stadium: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Best finish: Champions (2007, 2009, 2010)

Made the play-offs last season with a transitional team after the loss of legends such as retired Victor Matfield and transferred Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez, but were found wanting away to the Crusaders.

The lure of the euro will further deplete the Bulls' stocks at the end of the 2013 campaign with flyhalf Morne Steyn and lock Juandre Kruger off to France on lucrative contracts.

Much is expected of centre Jan Serfontein, star of the 2012 IRB Junior World Championship-winning Baby Bok team while scrumhalf Francois Hougaard needs to recapture the form shown as an impact player at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

While a fourth title would appear to be beyond the Bulls, they hope Steyn regains the world-class goal-kicking form that deserted him last year, and a top-six finish and a place in the play-offs is a realistic expectation.

Cheetahs:

Coach: Naka Drotske
Captain: Adriaan Strauss
Stadium: Free State, Bloemfontein
Best finish: 10th (2006, 2010, 2012)

Often the most entertaining South African side as they favour keeping the ball in hand and have elusive runners, but a sometimes non-existent defence means they consistently finish in the bottom half of the table.

They boast a superb goal-kicker in young Springbok Johan Goosen, who was the leading points-scorer in 2012 until a mid-season shoulder injury sidelined him for the rest of the competition.

Giant Ghana-born left wing Raymond Rhule is set to make his debut after an outstanding first season in the domestic Currie Cup, scoring numerous tries through pace and power.

Hooker Adriaan Strauss and utility prop Coenie Oosthuizen are the pick of a pack that has lost veteran Juan Smith, who retired this week after being crocked just two games into a comeback from a two-year injury absence.

Sharks:

Coach: John Plumtree (NZL)
Captain: Keegan Daniel
Stadium: Kings Park, Durban
Best finish: Runners-up (2001, 2007, 2012)

The Sharks scraped into the play-offs last season and then eliminated defending champions Queensland Reds in Brisbane and the Stormers in Cape Town before travel fatigue caught up with them in a heavy final loss to the Chiefs.

Hopes of another good run have taken a few early blows with injuries sidelining captain and No.8 Keegan Daniel and centre Tim Whitehead for a minimum of four rounds.

Hooker Bismarck du Plessis is another star who must watch the early matches from the stand, leaving Craig Burden to deputise between Springbok props Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis.

The pressure will be on flyhalf and goal-kicker Patrick Lambie, as he slugs it out with Goosen for the Springbok No. 10 shirt, while centre and stand-in skipper Francois Steyn can put the ball between the posts from inside his own half.

Southern Kings:

Coach: Matt Sexton (NZL)
Captain: Luke Watson
Stadium: Nelson Mandela Bay, Port Elizabeth
Best finish: First appearance

No-one is giving the controversial debutants a chance of survival and the dice are certainly loaded against the Eastern Cape team and New Zealand-born coach Matt Sexton.

After many years of unfulfilled promises to elevate the Kings and boost the sport in the area of the country with the most black rugby players, they had a "boardroom" promotion at the expense of bottom 2012 team the Lions.

But if the doom-and-gloom merchants are to be believed and a Kings side short of stars and depth finish last in the South African Conference, they will face a play-off with the Lions for a 2014 place.

Captain and loose forward Luke Watson has plenty of Super Rugby experience with the Stormers, and a kind draw which sees them start at home to Australian strugglers Western Force might provide some desperately needed momentum.

Stormers:

Coach: Allister Coetzee
Captain: Schalk Burger
Stadium: Newlands, Cape Town
Best finish: Runners-up (2010)

An outstanding defence helped get them to the semifinals last year, but a shock home loss to the Sharks meant another knockout disappointment for a team expected to be among the title challengers yet again this season.

They have gained from the demotion of the Lions with flyhalf Elton Jantjies and fullback/centre Jaco Taute moving south to Cape Town from Johannesburg for the Super Rugby campaign.

Jantjies, whose limited game time with the Springboks last season triggered media and public criticism of coach Heyneke Meyer, faces stiff competition for the No.10 shirt from Peter Grant, with both excellent goal-kickers.

The return of veteran flank Schalk Burger after a season on the sidelines is a huge boost although the injury curse has struck again with young lock Eben Etzebeth not expected to play for two months because of torn ankle ligaments.

AFP

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