Having finished 11th, beating the Waratahs, Brumbies and Crusaders along the way, the Cheetahs will go into the 2012 campaign with some confidence.
They need to learn how to win the close matches though – they lost by less than seven points seven times last year – but they will also know they could be playing for their SuperRugby future with the Southern Kings set to replace one of the South African franchises next year.
Much will depend on how well key players like Juan Smith and Coenie Oosthuizen recover from injury; and on how young flyhalves Johan Goosen and Sias Ebersohn perform.
It will also be important for them to tighten up in defence and find an adequate replacement for scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius, who was the joint leading try-scorer in SuperRugby last year but has now joined the Waratahs in Australia.
Heinrich Brussow: Crucial for both the Springboks and the Cheetahs, the openside flank’s work scavenging for the ball is vital for the continuity of the central franchise’s attacking game plan.
Juan Smith: How well the 31-year-old recovers from achilles surgery will go a long way to determining how well the Cheetahs fare. The talismanic blindside flanker is their regular captain, a fierce tackler and a strong ball-carrier.
Johan Goosen: The 19-year-old flyhalf was a big hit in last year’s Currie Cup, his massive boot catching most of the attention. But he also has slick hands and tackles bravely, so it could be a breakthrough season for the product of the great Grey College nursery.
Coenie Oosthuizen: It’s not often a prop ends a match with the most tackles or ball-steals, but the 22-year-old is no ordinary front-rower. He has already toured with the Springboks, is a strong scrummager who can pack down on either side, extremely mobile and he has good hands!
Ashley Johnson: The 25-year-old has not played more than his three Tests because of the loose forward riches South Africa has, but he is a livewire eighthman, a bustling defender and a pacy, strong ball-carrier.
Coach: A former Springbok hooker, Naka Drotske believes in the old-fashioned virtues of forward platforms and strong defence, but the only man to win the Currie Cup as both a player and coach is also not averse to his team playing with ball in hand.
Captain: Hooker Adriaan Strauss has also not played as many Tests (9) as he could have due to fierce competition for the number two jersey from John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis and Chiliboy Ralepelle in recent years, but the 26-year-old is a livewire player, throwing himself around the field, and also a force on attack.
New signings: Fullback Willie le Roux, one of the stars of Boland’s Currie Cup First Division triumph last year, and former Sharks flank Justin Downey.
Last year: 11th (P16 W5 L11)
Running the ball is the Stormers way, but it was their outstanding defence that made them serious SuperRugby challengers again in 2011. Having lost in the 2010 final against the Bulls, the Stormers again fell short last year, being thumped 29-10 by the Crusaders in Cape Town in the semi-finals.
The backline does not want for talent, despite the departure of Jaque Fourie, but the tight five needs to lay the platform.
The Stormers will also pray that the injury curse that struck them so badly last year is a thing of the past.
Habana, De Villiers and Burger are the guys the rest of the team will look up to, while the likes of Bekker, Vermeulen, De Jongh, Aplon and Elstadt are poised to really stamp their mark on SuperRugby after a disappointing finish to their campaign last year.
Allister Coetzee, a quiet figure as coach, will need to adapt to having greater authority as he takes over as the director of rugby following Rassie Erasmus’s departure.
FIVE BIGGEST PLAYERS
Jean de Villiers: The Stormers will look to the most-capped Springbok centre of all time to organise their exciting backline. There will be added responsibility as well for the 30-year-old because his long-time partner Jaque Fourie has moved to Japan.
Andries Bekker: The towering lock will ensure the Stormers get enough lineout ball, and he is seriously mobile as well, getting around the field in massive strides. The designated successor to Victor Matfield needs to shrug off several recent injuries.
Duane Vermeulen: Hailing from the tropical bushveld city of Nelspruit, the loose forward missed out on the World Cup due to injury after a fine 2011 SuperRugby campaign. The 25-year-old’s massive physical presence and abrasiveness is a comforting thought for the Stormers, who are often accused of lacking grunt up front.
Juan de Jongh: The 23-year-old has already done the business in 10 Tests for the Springboks and has been earmarked as the long-term replacement for Jaque Fourie. He has all the attributes for outside centre: tremendous pace, slick hands, vision and he is a determined, watertight defender.
Gio Aplon: Blistering pace, an unerring eye for the gap and good hands make Aplon a dazzling attacking back. And courage under the high ball and tremendous tenacity in defence make him a Stormers hero.
Coach: Allister Coetzee may have failed to pick up any meaningful trophies with the Stormers, but he remains one of South Africa’s most respected coaches. The former scrumhalf was the assistant coach of the 2007 World Cup-winning side and was also in the running to succeed Peter de Villiers as Springbok coach earlier this year.
Captain: Schalk Burger is the reigning SA Player of the Year and the veteran flank is still a tremendous threat to opponents by his mere physical presence, work-rate and shrewd reading of the game.
New signings: Prolific try-scorer Gerhard van den Heever, the former Bulls wing, and 32-year-old former Springboks, Sharks and Saracens prop Deon Carstens.
Last year: 2nd, losing semi-finalists, SA conference winners (P17 W12 L5)
Despite losing such massive names as Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Gurthro Steenkamp, there are many old stalwarts still with the Bulls. Coach Frans Ludeke still has a dozen Springboks to choose from, with former SuperRugby champions like Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, Morne Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling and Wynand Olivier still around to help build a new Bulls dynasty.
They know how to play winning SuperRugby and are not afraid of being pragmatic, while they shrugged off a horror overseas tour last year to win six matches in a row back in South Africa.
Their development of players within their structures is probably the best in the country, so if anybody can absorb the loss of such giants, it would be them.
And their fanatical fans make them tough to beat at Loftus Versfeld.
FIVE BIGGEST PLAYERS
Francois Hougaard: The short utility back is one of the most exciting players in South Africa as he showed during the World Cup. He is able to take the smallest of gaps when at scrumhalf, while he has serious pace, enough to play wing for the Springboks. Great things are expected of Fourie du Preez’s successor.
Morne Steyn: The leading scorer in last year’s World Cup should never be written off. The incumbent Springbok flyhalf is almost infallible kicking for poles, is adept at pressurising the opposition with his tactical kicking and has even sparked backlines in his day.
Chiliboy Ralepelle: The 25-year-old is expected to come into his own this year as he should no longer be playing in the shadow of other hookers. His tremendous work-rate means he pops up all over the field and he is a valuable support act in the Bulls’ attacking plans.
Juandre Kruger: The 1.97m, 107kg lock is making his SuperRugby debut but he is not a rookie and is not to be underestimated. He has already tasted considerable success with Northampton in the Heineken Cup and although not as robust as Bakkies Botha, he is more mobile, while he will bring more physicality than Victor Matfield.
Werner Kruger: A top-class tighthead prop, the 27-year-old has had a taste of international rugby now with two starts in last year’s Tri-Nations. A tall and powerful man, Kruger is a no-frills prop but was the bulwark of the Bulls scrum last year. He is also a strong tackler, a big presence at the rucks and an important cog in the lineout.
Coach: Frans Ludeke has proven to be an ideal fit for the Bulls, despite having a torrid time in SuperRugby when he coached the Lions. Ludeke is cut from the same conservative cloth as many of the Bulls players and is an eager disciple of the virtues of structure, discipline and “becoming a family”. But many critics are asking whether he can really build a new era of Bulls success now that Heyneke Meyer, Du Preez, Matfield, Botha and Rossouw are gone …
Captain: Pierre Spies had a good 2011 but the eighthman has such tremendous physical attributes and natural talent that he should be having great seasons now that he is in his prime at 26. His leadership traits are not in doubt, but the Bulls will be hoping he leads from the front on the field as well.
New signings: Exciting young Stormers outside centre Johann Sadie and his backline partner JJ Engelbrecht, hard-man flank Jacques Potgieter from Eastern Province, and former Lions star Jano Vermaak at scrumhalf.
Last year: 7th (P16 W10 L6).
South Africa’s Currie Cup champions are not expected to translate their domestic success into a SuperRugby title – the two competitions are just worlds apart.
But former All Black coach John Mitchell has instilled a tremendous team ethos and they will expect to end the campaign with their heads held high.
Given their previous SuperRugby struggles and their current financial problems, the Lions are the most likely candidates to be relegated for the Southern Kings, which could just bring out the best in them.
They have one of the best young talents in the country in flyhalf Elton Jantjies, and one of South Africa’s greatest flyhalves to guide him in Butch James.
They will be looking to veteran Springbok prop CJ van der Linde to anchor a pack that will be tested to the full in SuperRugby.
Expect players like Joshua Strauss, Derick Minnie, Franco van der Merwe, Cobus Grobbelaar and Wikus van Heerden to play their hearts out.
FIVE BIGGEST PLAYERS
Elton Jantjies: Just 21 years old and already a Springbok and a Currie Cup winner, the flyhalf has it all: tremendous vision, great hands, a super pass and an ever-improving boot. And he tackles.
Derick Minnie: A fetcher who generally manages to stay on the right side of the law, the 25-year-old is not afraid to get stuck in and is just the sort of whole-hearted team player coach John Mitchell loves.
Butch James: The flyhalf’s brilliant performance in the 2007 World Cup final showed his true ability and, although he is 33 and on surely his last pair of knees, James will bring invaluable experience to the Lions. Although a skilful distributor, his main role will probably be as a rock-hard defender in the first channel.
Jaco Taute: The 20-year-old played in every Lions SuperRugby match last year and all but two of their Currie Cup games, saying much about his growth and ability. The fullback is lanky, strong and an elusive runner, as well as being solid under the high ball.
Doppies la Grange: You would be hard-pressed to find a more solid team-man and centre than Doppies. Which explains why Mitchell has often entrusted him with the captaincy. There is nothing flashy about the 30-year-old, but he does the basics well and is tight in defence.
Coach: John Mitchell is the sort of hard-nosed coach who generally gets what he wants. Defeat is not an option for the former All Black and he is a builder of teams; individuals are not what he is after. Having conquered the Currie Cup, making the Lions contenders in SuperRugby will be a big goal for the New Zealander.
Captain: Joshua Strauss has one of the more spectacular beards in rugby and it became an icon of the Lions’ amazing Currie Cup success. But it should not detract from what a fine player the loose forward is: a hard-hitting tackler and committed carrier of the ball, it is Strauss who does much of the dirty work for his team. It’s certainly a case of leading from the front with him.
New signings: John Mitchell is sticking with the squad he built last year, with former Waratahs and Griqualand West lock Hendrik Roodt the most notable addition.
Last year: 14th (P16 W3 D1 L12)
The KwaZulu-Natalians have traditionally been South Africa’s most successful team in the southern hemisphere tournament and coach John Plumtree needs to figure out why they’ve gone off the boil so badly, failing to reach the semi-finals since 2008.
Inconsistency, especially at home, is one of the reasons why and Plumtree will be looking to rebuild a more cohesive team after the departure of stars such as John Smit, Stefan Terblanche, Adrian Jacobs and Gerhard Mostert.
With the versatile Smit gone and loosehead Beast Mtawarira out with a broken leg, there is some concern over the front row, previously an area of great strength. The Sharks could also do with more presence at lock, but their powerful loose trio will keep them going forward.
Much will depend on the effectiveness of their backline, with Plumtree hoping wing JP Pietersen and new signing Tim Whitehead can do a patch-up job at centre.
Most South Africans will expect the Sharks to do well, however, and certainly challenge for top spot in their conference.
FIVE BIGGEST PLAYERS
Bismarck du Plessis: The fiery 27-year-old has spent the last five years in the shadow of John Smit and will be looking to confirm himself as the best hooker in the world. Quick to the breakdown and quick to make his physical presence felt there, Du Plessis will also be looking to anchor the Sharks’ set-pieces.
JP Pietersen: Fast and powerful, busy in defence and outstanding under the high ball, the 25-year-old will be aiming to catch Bryan Habana as South Africa’s most-capped wing. Judging by the Sharks’ pre-season warm-ups, the 2007 World Cup winner could well be playing outside centre in this year’s SuperRugby tournament.
Willem Alberts: A top-class loose forward who enjoyed a dream introduction to international rugby at the end of 2010 and was a regular in Peter de Villiers’ Springbok squad thereafter. A tremendously strong man, the 27-year-old is a lethal ball-carrier and strong tackler, and can also be used as a back-up lock.
Pat Lambie: Blonde and baby-faced, the 21-year-old utility back is magical with ball in hand and has twinkle toes. But he’s no fairy in defence and his boot is a powerful weapon as well.
Freddie Michalak: The mercurial Frenchman would love to add a SuperRugby title to his tremendous list of exploits. He played a key role in the Sharks’ Currie Cup campaign last year, finishing as the leading points-scorer before they faded in the final. Coach Plumtree has indicated he wants to move the 29-year-old to scrumhalf for the SuperRugby competition, so he and Lambie can try and spark a faltering backline. Michalak is just the player to pull it off.
Coach: John Plumtree is under some pressure from the Sharks’ considerable supporter base to improve on their performances in a tournament in which they have not made the semi-finals since 2008. The genial New Zealander has made some strange choices in terms of recruitment, but also having so many Springboks in his team has led to disruption at times. The former Natal flank will be relying on his powerful pack to gel from the start.
Captain: Keegan Daniel has been named as the official captain, but the diminutive loose forward is unlikely to play in every game and Plumtree has said he wants to spread the leadership around. That’s because the Sharks have plenty of loose forward reserves and his high-tempo, expansive game may not be suited to every match in rugby’s most attritional tournament. That’s not to say, though, that he does not have the respect and admiration of every Sharks player for his do-or-die efforts on the field.
New signings: Promising former Stormers centre Tim Whitehead should help spark a disappointing backline, while fullback Riaan Viljoen and his big boot have been brought in from the Cheetahs. Former Clermont centre Marius Joubert will also return to SuperRugby, but the 32-year-old looked well off the pace in the Currie Cup.
Last year: 6th, lost in quarterfinal (P17 W10 D1 L6)