Look who is back
Super Rugby is back and so are the Lions. That is the headline news of a round that features two all-South African derbies.
It is fitting that the 2014 Super Rugby season kicks off with the Lions travelling to Bloemfontein on Saturday to take on the Cheetahs.
The team that was unceremoniously dumped as a result of botched boardroom decision is now back after winning their right to be in the competition by beating the Southern Kings in a promotion-relegation series.
And, just days after the South African Rugby Union confirmed they are now entrenched, they will mark their return to Super Rugby against one of the surprise packages of last year - the Cheetahs.
That game is followed by Round One's only other game - when the Sharks host the Bulls at Kings Park in Durban.
Jan de Koning looks at the Round One matches!
Saturday, February 15
Cheetahs v Lions
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein - Kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 GMT)
Whichever way you look at this, it is an emotion-charged encounter, because of the Lions' return to Super Rugby.
The coaches will, naturally, play down the significance. The reality is that the spotlight will be brightest on the men from Johannesburg - to see if their youthful, new-look squad have it within them to be competitive.
Most cynics will tell you they are destined to finish last. These are he same so-called 'pundits' who predicted regular 50-point hammerings for the Southern Kings last year.
It is not a secret that the pundits got it badly wrong in 2013.
What will count against the Lions - and in favour of the Cheetahs - is their experience, or rather lack of it.
The Cheetahs have just one Super Rugby rookie in their starting XV and one more on the bench. The Lions have six rookies, including the entire front row, starting he game.
And the rest of the team doesn't have much experience either.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann says the lack of experience, and underdog status that accompanies it, cuts both ways.
"We have not seen much of the Cheetahs and will base it [our approach and tactics] on what we saw last year," he said of his team's trip to Bloemfontein.
"Any season, ahead of the first round, you always wonder if you have done enough did you get round to all the aspects you needed to address, are the players fit enough, are they sharp enough?
"We hope that we have ticked all the boxes we needed to tick, so we have to trust in our systems and hopefully we'll be able to execute it well at the weekend."
The Cheetahs, who surprised friend and foe last year when they reached the Super Rugby play-offs for the first time, know they will be under pressure to prove they are not one-hit wonders.
That journey starts against a team they feel can pose a serious threat because of the type of game they play.
"It is not a secret that they are a team that likes to play with the ball in hand," Cheetahs assistant coach Hawies Fourie told this website, when asked about the Lions.
"Their attacking game is very good, so we will be tested on defence and will have to be very focussed."
The Cheetahs backline mentor feels the Lions, despite the loss of a host of senior players since their last appearance in Super Rugby, still have a group of quality players - with a handful of seasoned players who have played Super Rugby.
And, of course, the youngsters will bring the usual dosage of youthful exuberance.
"They have a good mix and we expect them to be very competitive," Fourie said, adding: ""They may have lost some experience, but they do have some quality players - guys like Derrick Minnie, Jaco Kriel, Warren Whiteley, those are three very good loose forwards.
[Lock] Franco van der Merwe has been part of the Bok squad.
"Those are guys who won't take a step back for anybody.
"Willie Wepener is a seasoned hooker and Robbie Coetzee is one of the most promising No.2s in the country.
"They also have some quality players who came through in the Curie Cup competition last year, guys like Jacques van Rooyen."
The Cheetahs are certainly not underestimating the threat posed by the Lions' pack of forwards.
Then there is the expectation that comes with being favourites, especially after the breakout season in 2013.
"We're definitely under pressure to repeat our achievements from last year, but at the same time I want to say that we've also gained a lot of confidence and belief from 2013 in that we know we can reach the play-offs," coach Naka Drotské said.
2012: Cheetahs won 26-5, Welkom
2012: Lions won 27-25, Johannesburg
2011: Cheetahs won 53-19, Johannesburg
2011: Lions won 25-20, Bloemfontein
2010: Cheetahs won 59-10, Welkom
Prediction: There is no doubt the Cheetahs are favourites and for most bookies it is just a matter of the margin. You can get good odds on a Lions win or even the Lions just finishing within 10 points of the Cheetahs. However, I would not put my house on a Lions win, maybe just a little flutter. The smart money is on a Cheetahs win - between 10 and 15 points.
Cheetahs: 15 Willem le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Johannes Prinsloo, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Coenraad Oosthuizen, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Caylib Oosthuizen.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Nicolaas van Dyk, 19 Rynhardt Landman, 20 Jean Cook, 21 Sarel Pretorius, 22 Elgar Watts, 23 Ryno Benjamin.
Lions: 15 Chrysander Botha, 14 Deon van Rensburg, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Stefan Watermeyer, 11 Ruan Combrinck, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Derick Minnie, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Franco Mostert, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Willie Britz, 20 Warwick Tecklenburg, 21 Francois de Klerk, 22 Coenie van Wyk, 23 Alwyn Hollenbach.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
Sharks v Bulls
(Kings Park, Durban - Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
The game in Durban is also about new beginnings - mostly for Jake White, John Smit and the Sharks.
Since he took over as Director of Rugby at the Sharks, brought in by the man who captained his Springbok team to World Cup glory in 2007, Smit, the air of expectation in Durban has been enormous.
White has changed the fortunes of several teams, but never before has he started out with such a settled and talented group of players.
He had to build up teams from the bottom. Now he has a solid base and can just do his magic.
However, the Bulls were written off as title contenders last year as well and won the South African Conference.
They lost in the semifinal to the Brumbies - who was coached by White at the time.
There is no doubt he has the Bulls' number, but he has been desperate to downplay his team's favourites tag this week.
"You know what the Bulls are going to do in terms of their style of play," White said.
"They have been doing it for years.
"They are going to kick from the base of the scrum, they are going to kick from base of line-out. They will maul the line-outs. They are going to try and physically dominate you in first 25 minutes to see if they can get some ascendancy.
"I can't believe they will move away from what has worked for them in the past."
The Bulls, who have had just one pre-season outing and lost to the Stormers, have been subdued in their proclamations this week - with all the spotlight on Victor Matfield and his return to Super Rugby.
However, despite the low-key build-up, Bulls coach Frans Ludeke feels his team got the recipe right.
"[pre-season] The game against the Stormers was a great dress rehearsal for us," Ludeke told this website.
"There were lots of facets [of our game], which will be vital for us [against the Sharks] in Durban this weekend, that required work in order for us to have a solid foundation [in the game].
"We got out of that game [against the Stormers] exactly what we wanted."
The Bulls mentor said this past week they worked hard on certain areas, to ensure they are "spot on and accurate" in their execution.
"The keys in these games are to ensure you have a sound platform, have quality possession and get out of your own half into the right areas of the field.
"We say it often and it may sound like a cliche, but that is what the game is about - if you can lay a solid foundation from set pieces you have a great chance."
On Matfield's inclusion, Ludeke said: "We all know what Victor is capable of. He showed in training and our friendly match that he is still right up there amongst the best and I am confident that he will make a telling contribution when called upon."
2013: Bulls won 20-19, Pretoria
2013: Bulls won 18-16, Durban
2012: Sharks won 32-10, Durban
2012: Bulls won 18-13, Pretoria
2011: Sharks won 26-23, Pretoria
Prediction: These two teams are almost always within one score of each other at the end of the game. Not surprising then to see the bookies give the Sharks just a seven-point handicap - certainly not much in it. It is also always brutal and that is why the Sharks should edge it - by less than 10 points.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (captain), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Stephan Lewies, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Heimar Williams, 23 S'bura Sithole.
Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Louis Fouché, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies (captain), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Flip van der Merwe, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Victor Matfield, 20 Jacques Engelbrecht, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Ulrich Beyers.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Stuart Berry (South Africa), Marius Jonker (South Africa)
TMO: Deon van Blommestein (South Africa)