While the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks all have enough pedigree to make winning the tournament their priority, for the Lions and Cheetahs, who have just seven top-10 finishes between them in the 16 years of the Sanzar competition, it will be a desperate battle for survival.
The Eastern Cape-based Southern Kings have won promotion into SuperRugby next year in the South African Rugby Union (Saru) boardroom, meaning one of the current five franchises will have to make way for them.
The “big five” have called on Saru to prevent any of them being dropped by convincing Sanzar to make it a 16-team competition, but they are unlikely to win that battle with contracts signed with broadcasters and franchises through to the end of 2015.
The Johannesburg-based Lions managed a fairytale Currie Cup triumph last year, but are currently in the midst of a financial crisis and a lack of top-class players could count against them in the more competitive and demanding southern hemisphere tournament.
The 21-year-old Elton Jantjies emerged as a slick flyhalf who served a fluent backline well in last year’s Currie Cup, but he and veterans Butch James (flyhalf) and CJ van der Linde (prop) are the only current Springboks in the Lions squad.
Lions coach John Mitchell is in a typically defiant mood, however.
“Our only concern is ourselves and our environment, not what other people are saying. We’re just interested in our goals as a team, we’re familiar with each other and that’s something I believe we can bank on,” the former All Blacks coach said on Wednesday.
The central Cheetahs franchise have a few more Springboks in their ranks, but will go into the competition without the inspirational leadership of flank Juan Smith, who is still battling an achilles injury that also kept him out of last year’s World Cup.
But in Heinrich Brussow, the Cheetahs have one of the most effective fetchers in world rugby, and coach Naka Drotske said the flank would be his team’s new inspiration.
“Heinrich [Brüssow] does make a huge difference to our team and I am really looking forward to seeing him in action on the field. With his style of play, he encourages the other players to be aggressive and he will make a difference to any team,” Drotske said.
The Cheetahs play the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday and, having lost their first four matches last year, Drotske said it was imperative they started well in 2012.
“In the past that was a major drawback for us. We lose a few games early in the season, which we should win, and last year there were several defeats. There is no doubt we want to get off to a better start.”
The Western Cape-based Stormers, winners of the South African Conference last year before being knocked out by the Crusaders in the semi-finals, will have to make do without the brilliance of Jaque Fourie at outside centre and the backroom input of former director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, but the backline is still potent. But it was the defence – the best in the competition last year – that was the Stormers’ greatest strength last year, while the lack of grunt in the tight five was the biggest weakness.
The Bulls, champions in 2007, 2009 and 2010, have undergone a changing of the guard with stars such as Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw no longer involved. But that has created room for potential futures heroes such as Francois Hougaard, Juandre Kruger, Flip van der Merwe and Dewald Potgieter to take centre stage. The presence of two young centres in former Stormer Johann Sadie and former SA U20 star Francois Venter suggests they may play with more daring this year.
But the Bulls also know how to play winning rugby and they have more than half-a-dozen members of their title-winning sides back this year, including flyhalf Morne Steyn and eighthman and new captain Pierre Spies.
“It’s a credit to our succession planning that we’re not starting all over,” coach Frans Ludeke said. “We have people to step into the vital spots and I’m confident the players will step up, they know it’s their time.”
Commentators are also favouring the Sharks to make an impact, with inconsistency, especially at home, to blame for their failure to make the semi-finals since 2008. The presence of 16 Springboks in their squad suggests they have flattered to deceive, but the hunger to succeed in the likes of hooker Bismarck du Plessis, finally playing out of the shadow of John Smit, outside back JP Pietersen, loose forward Willem Alberts and the young utility back Pat Lambie suggests they will be a force this year.
The Sharks also have the services of the experienced exiled French halfback Freddie Michalak, but the front row has been weakened due to the absence of Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira with a broken leg.