PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 15: Victor Matfield of the Bulls during the Vodacom Bulls conditioning session at Loftus Versfeld B Field on January 15, 2014 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images)

This time last year, a week before Super Rugby kicked off, you would have got handsome odds on Victor Matfield a year later making a comeback for the Bulls at the ripe age of 36, of Jake White forsaking the Brumbies for the Sharks to succeed an axed institution in John Plumtree, and of Schalk Burger once more lacing up his boots with intent following a wretched run of injury and illness.

You would have also been an inhabitant of Cloud Cuckoo Land if you had predicted that the Cheetahs would win more games overseas than they lost, and would make the play-offs for the first time in their history, and that a Bulls team still reeling from mass retirements would win the SA Conference ahead of the fancied Stormers and Sharks.

The one thing certainly written in stone was that the Kings would finish last, although even Port Elizabeth’s eternal optimists could not have foreseen how well the Kings would perform given that they were entering arguably the world’s toughest rugby competition from a standing start.

The Kings did South Africa proud, and it is a pity that they will not have a second season to build on their encouraging debut. The fact that the South African Rugby Union still has not resolved the issue of the “fifth” franchise is nothing short of a disgrace, and following the promotion-relegation battle that saw the Lions just edge out the Kings, we now have the situation of another local franchise entering the competition without a hope in hell.

Commiserations to Lions coach Johan Ackermann, one of the true gentlemen of South African rugby. How can you successfully coach a team against the likes of the Crusaders, Chiefs, Reds, Brumbies, Sharks and Stormers after a year in the Vodacom Cup, and following the departure of most of your leading players?

So the Lions will finish 15th, and Saru should hang their heads in shame.

On the other end of the local scale, there is a great deal of optimism. The South African challenge is looking formidable once you move beyond the hopeless position of the Lions.

The Sharks are genuine championship contenders given their core of current Springboks; the same has been said of the Stormers for years only for them to flatter to deceive, or rather to splutter and choke in a manner so well perfected by the Durbanites for so long, while the proud Bulls are relishing their outsider status following their humbling in the Currie Cup. And the Cheetahs now have a core of experienced players that last year saw them finishing on the right side of narrow-point margins after years of heart-breaking losses.

But the Cheetahs’s relative success last year has to be seen in perspective. They finished sixth on the overall log, and that is realistically their ceiling. They just don’t have the quality depth of the other big unions and, usually, they literally cannot last the distance because of attrition suffered to front-line players.

Last year, the Bloemfontein team got lucky with injuries, but if fortune frowns upon them this season, they will be hard pressed to emulate last season’s heroics.

Last year, the Sharks were an unfortunate disappointment. At one stage, they had a calamitous 13 first-choice players out with injury, but there was not a lot of sympathy for a coaching staff that the new powers that be believed had exacted all they could from the players, and that a change was needed.

That was probably fair comment, and although the Sharks’s player base is mostly unchanged, there is a new spirit of rejuvenation at Kings Park under the famously industrious Jake White.

And a new captain, too, in belligerent Bismarck du Plessis. White knows his stuff. He won a World Cup with John Smit leading from the front in the No 2 jersey, and he could come close to a Super Rugby title with the mighty Bismarck stoking the fires in the engine room.

The Stormers will argue the perception that the KZN team is South Africa’s best shot at the title. And if you look at the quality of their squad, they have justification. But even Cape Town’s most loyal are growing weary of the Stormers failing to perform to expectations. It is all very well that they continually have the best defence in the completion but at some point you also have to add meaningful attack. Tackling the opposition into submission will win you more games than you lose, but when you encounter teams such as the Crusader and Chiefs, and indeed the Sharks, an inability to score tries will mostly spell defeat.

There is a growing feeling in the Cape that coach Allister Coetzee has his last chance to grow his team beyond having the competition’s meanest defence.

Last year the Bulls astonished the critics by finishing as South Africa’s top team after the pool games, only to lose at home in the playoffs to White’s Brumbies. It seemed that they had successfully rebuilt after the mass exodus in 2011 of legendary players such as Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and Danie Rossouw.

The problem is that much of the new senior core promptly left after the 2013 campaign. No fewer than 10 players joined northern hemisphere clubs and the Bulls were pretty much back to square one in the Currie Cup.

So they have it all to do this year, but they will be privately confident that the competition is going to be shocked by youngsters due to hit their straps – the likes of centres Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht. They will be led by a captain who, in turn, has everything to prove. Pierre Spies was injured last year and watched Duane Vermeulen entrench himself in the Springbok No 8 jersey.

This year 2014 is very much about the “comeback”. Be it White, Spies, Matfield or Burger, it is going to be a South African challenge fizzing with intrigue. - Sunday Independent