Will the Sharks live up to their billing? Have the Bulls got the fire-power and depth to be serious title challengers? And, will the Cheetahs start with a bang or will the Lions prove the naysayers wrong and cause a major surprise?
These are the questions rugby fans will want answered today as this year’s edition of Super Rugby kicks off. Two big derbies get the competition under way with the Stormers having a bye in round one and the teams from Australia and New Zealand only starting next weekend.
The four South African teams in action today in Bloemfontein and Durban have had very different build-ups to the competition, but the results and performances in those warm-up games mean absolutely zilch from now on.
The Cheetahs were the surprise package last year, going all the way to the play-offs, so they should be brimming with confidence. They’ve had a fairly quiet build-up, away from prying eyes and the kind of attention some of the other teams have to put up with, but that, seemingly, suits them just fine. They’re a tight-knit unit in Bloemfontein and they now know what’s required to be successful in this very demanding competition. The good news for coach Naka Drotske is that he’s got mercurial flyhalf Johan Goosen back after a lengthy injury lay-off and he’s got a greater pool of quality players to pick from.
Man for man they shouldn’t have too many problems dispatching the Lions. Johan Ackermann’s side are young and inexperienced, there are few stars and it’s difficult to find a player who’ll provide the spark needed to get those around him firing. If the Lions are to have any say in Bloemfontein they’re going to have to defend well and not allow the Cheetahs a fast start.
Down in Durban the Sharks have made all the right noises in pre-season and in Jake White they have a coach who knows what it takes to win at the highest level. They’ve got a seriously talented squad, littered with star quality, and they’ve got depth – everything that’s needed to be successful in Super Rugby. There are no weak areas and the Bulls will have to produce an almighty performance if they’re to come away with the spoils.
Frans Ludeke’s team seem vulnerable up front and you can be sure it’s here where White will tell his players to take charge. It should be a fascinating game first up, and let’s not forget Victor Matfield will make his first competitive outing since returning to the game. What sort of influence will he have, if any?
In Bloemfontein, 5pm
Cheetahs: Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Johann Sadie, Francois Venter, Raymond Rhule, Johan Goosen, Shaun Venter, Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne, Boom Prinsloo, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss (capt), Caylib Oosthuizen. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Trevor Nyakane, Maks van Dyk, Ligtoring Landman, Jean Cook, Sarel Pretorius, Elgar Watts, Rayno Benjamin
Lions: Chrysander Botha, Deon van Rensburg, Lionel Mapoe, Stefan Watermeyer, Ruan Combinck, Marnitz Boshoff, Michael Bondesio, Warren Whiteley (capt), Derick Minnie, Jaco Kriel, Franco van der Merwe, Franco Mostert, Julian Redelinghuys, Robbie Coetzee, Schalk van der Merwe. Replacements: Willie Wepener, Jacques van Rooyen, Ruan Dreyer, Willie Britz, Warwick Tecklenburg, Faf de Klerk, Coenie van Wyk, Alwyn Hollenbach
In Durban, 7pm
Sharks: SP Marais, Odwa Ndungane, Paul Jordaan, Frans Steyn, Lwazi Mvovo, Patrick Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Anton Bresler, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis (capt), Beast Mtawarira. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Dale Chadwick, Lourens Adriaanse, Stephan Lewies, Jean Deysel, Charl McLeod, Heimar Williams, S’bura Sithole
Bulls: Jürgen Visser, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Louis Fouché, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies (c), Jacques du Plessis, Jono Ross, Flip van der Merwe, Paul Willemse, Werner Kruger, Callie Visagie, Dean Greyling. Replacements: Bongi Mbonambi, Frik Kirsten, Marcel van der Merwe, Victor Matfield, Jacques Engelbrecht, Piet van Zyl, Handré Pollard, Ulrich Beyers - Saturday Star