Coach – Former Bath and Kobe Steelers coach GARY GOLD has brought a fresh approach to player management and an emphasis on more attacking play since taking over from Jake White, who left the Sharks at the end of September at a crucial stage of the Currie Cup. The current Montpellier coach left Durban in something of a pall, the fans not happy with a territory-dominated game plan and the players and other coaches not enjoying White’s abrasive management style.
Top Players – The Sharks probably have the most star-studded team of the South African Conference, starting with the first-choice Springbok front row of Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, the exciting lock pairing of up-and-coming Pieter-Steph du Toit and experienced former Saracens and England player Mouritz Botha, a loose trio headlined by Springboks Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee, the incumbent Springbok halfback pair of Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie, and plenty of quality outside them in former Racing Metro centre Francois Steyn, and JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo on the wings.
Captain – BISMARCK DU PLESSIS is arguably the best hooker in the world and a talismanic figure for both the Springboks and the Sharks with the huge physical presence he brings to the game. The veteran of 70 Tests turns 31 in May, but he will want to show he has many golden years ahead of him.
Last year – The Sharks won the South African Conference but finished third on the final round-robin log following crucial late defeats at the hands of the lowly Stormers and Cheetahs which cost them the home semi-final they always seemed to be heading for. That condemned them to a quarterfinal against the Highlanders before travelling to Christchurch to play the Crusaders, who romped home 38-6 in the semi-final. Many critics blamed the Sharks’ “stone-age game-plan” for their failure to turn their forward dominance through most of the campaign into a home semi-final.
This year – The Sharks, with almost all of their stars returning to action and some valuable additions to their squad, are obviously amongst the favourites to win the title. The more positive approach of Gold, plus the input of tactical guru Brendan Venter, should make them even more of a threat this year. But the effects of change can also be disruptive and how well the Sharks adapt remains to be seen.
Coach – The demands of the fickle supporters in the Western Cape have finally had their toll on ALLISTER COETZEE and the former Springbok assistant coach will head to Japan to replace Gary Gold at the Kobe Steelers at the end of the SuperRugby season. Western Province, basically the Stormers minus their Springboks, are the Currie Cup champions, but the Stormers have always offered much in the southern hemisphere competition without delivering the goods. Since reaching the final in 2010 and the semi-finals in 2011 and 2012, they have slipped down the standings to seventh in 2013 and a parlous 11th last year, their worst finish since 2006. So the pressure is on Coetzee to finish his five-year stint as head coach on a high.
Top players – The Stormers have rectified their former ills by assembling a powerful pack that includes stars such as prop Frans Malherbe, one of the best loose trios in the competition in Schalk Burger, Nizaam Carr and Duane Vermeulen, and two tremendous locks in Eben Etzebeth and former Biarritz star Manuel Carizza, who has 44 Test caps for Argentina. Given enough ball, backs like Juan de Jongh, Damian de Allende and Cheslin Kolbe certainly have the ability to beat opposing defences.
Captain – It is probably only a matter of time till DUANE VERMEULEN becomes the Springbok captain and the SA Player of the Year for 2014 will lead from the front in trying to make Newlands one of the toughest lairs of all. An indefatigable eighthman, Vermeulen is a powerful force with ball in hand, a steely defender and a potent force at the breakdown, as well as being a natural leader.
Last year – The Stormers had little to smile about in their 2014 campaign, the highlights being their wins over the Sharks and Bulls at the back-end of the competition that effectively messed up the chances of their South African rivals. They were hard hit by injuries up front but also struggled to match the tempo of play set by overseas opposition.
This year – The Stormers looked a different side in winning eight of their 10 Currie Cup matches and claiming the title in a dramatic final, upping the pace of their play, looking to keep ball in hand more and generally playing more positive rugby, all with an eye on this year’s SuperRugby campaign. Their coaching staff have put a particular emphasis on conditioning as they believe the game has changed into a much more high-intensity affair and they certainly seem better equipped for a title challenge this year.
Coach – Patience could well start running out for coach FRANS LUDEKE, who at times last season sounded like a broken record as he bemoaned his side’s poor execution and utter failure to get results away from home. But the momentum of the three previous years that saw the rebuilding Bulls rise from seventh to fifth to second on the log was broken by poor contracting of players that saw a raft of first-choice stars leave Loftus Versfeld, forcing Ludeke to start the rebuilding process again.
Top players – With Handre Pollard pulling the strings at flyhalf, and Jan Serfontein next to him, the Bulls are hopeful of being a much more effective attacking force this year. The pack has been boosted by former Cheetahs stars Lappies Labuschagne, Trevor Nyakane and Adriaan Strauss electing to play their rugby with the Bulls this year. With Springboks Victor Matfield, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha, Marcel van der Merwe and Deon Stegmann also up front, the backs should have plenty of front-foot ball to play with.
Captain – PIERRE SPIES has plenty of pressure to deal with this year: Not only does he need to meet the expectations created by the proud tradition of Bulls rugby, with their last major trophy coming five years ago, but he is also struggling to regain his place in the Springbok squad ahead of the World Cup. Spies, who has not played much rugby over the last two years due to injury, sometimes seem caught between the more traditional eighthman style of play that suits his former life as a wing, and the more robust, tighter approach the Bulls’ game plan seems to favour.
Last year – Already ravaged by the exodus of unhappy players to foreign clubs, the Bulls were then hard-hit by injuries to key loose forwards Botha, Spies and Stegmann. But they were even harder-hit by their self-inflicted sorrows away from home, crucial errors seeing them fail to win a single game on the road. Their only blemish at home came when they were held to a draw by the Chiefs, but by losing away games to the Lions and Stormers in the closing weeks of the competition, they dropped out of playoff contention and finished ninth.
This year – There is more optimism about the Bulls’ chances this year because they have focused on developing a more expansive style of play, they have been willing to spend some money in obtaining three key players from the Cheetahs, and surely their top players will stay injury-free this year and actually be able to play more rugby.
Coach – NAKA DROTSKE has been at the helm of the Cheetahs since the 2007 season and has only managed to steer his side into the top-10 once, in 2013. But the gains of that year were reversed in embarrassing fashion last year as the Cheetahs tumbled to 14th on the log and the former Free State captain was sent to the United Kingdom to study new coaching techniques. The pressure is clearly on Drotske.
Top players – Newly-capped Springboks Lood de Jager and Oupa Mohoje provide the spark amongst the pack, while prop Coenie Oosthuizen weds plenty of physicality with surprising mobility and skill at the breakdown. Willie le Roux and Cornal Hendricks provide plenty of joy with their lovely attacking skills at the back, but there were hints towards the end of last year that the honeymoon might be over for them as defences grow wise to their tricks.
Captain – Loyal lock FRANCOIS UYS has exchanged his status as a stalwart performer in the pack for the captain’s armband this year. A hard-working 28-year-old, Uys does not shy away from the physical battle up front, but also has useful ball-skills suiting the free-flowing style of rugby the Cheetahs prefer.
Last year – The Cheetahs did well on attack, playing some thrilling rugby as they scored 37 tries. But their defence was full of holes and conceding 58 tries and an average of 33 points per match saw them plummet from sixth in 2013 to second-last in 2014. Despite the talent available to them and their enthusiasm for positive rugby, the Cheetahs were not well-coached last year.
This year – With their coach almost at the exit door and key players such as Racing Metro flyhalf Johan Goosen, hooker Adriaan Strauss, prop Trevor Nyakane and flank Lappies Labuschagne already gone, it is hard to see the Cheetahs finishing anywhere but in the bottom handful of teams.
Coach – Former Springbok lock JOHAN ACKERMANN comes across as a genial giant, ever polite and humble, and this has led to a far happier camp at Ellis Park. But he is far more than just a pretty face as evidenced by his ability to get the best out of relatively limited resources. The Lions have not only produced the results under his leadership but have played attractive rugby while impressing with their forward play, especially their scrummaging.
Top players – While his squad does not boast any superstars, Ackermann has reason to be chuffed by the development of his players over the last 18 months. Critically, he has a powerful front row anchored by Julian Redelinghuys, tremendous loose forwards in Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel and Derick Minnie, and two Springbok flyhalves in Marnitz Boshoff and Elton Jantjies.
Captain – At times WARREN WHITELEY seems too skilful, pacy and innovative to be a Springbok forward and he has been a driving force behind the Lions’ high-tempo style of play. Hugely popular as a leader, he is also highly-respected, especially overseas, as a player.
Last year – The Lions marked their return to SuperRugby with a highly-commendable 12th-place finish, winning a franchise record seven games. Given that they had no high-profile players after being cast into the SuperRugby wilderness in 2013, many are still wondering how they managed to do it. The answer is simple: through determination, tremendous belief, commitment, passion and pride, work ethic, positive intent with ball in hand and technical accuracy up front.
This year – The Lions did all that could have been expected and more in the Currie Cup, suggesting that this team is continuing to grow and improve. They do have a challenging draw this year, however, going on tour in Week Four – they did struggle overseas in 2014 – and only having a bye in Round 10.