1st – Natal Sharks
Of all the South African teams, it seems that the Natal Sharks are doing the bets job at keeping its’ Springboks at the club, while also making quality signing. Despite losing long-time servants to the club such as Frans Styen and the du Plessis brothers, they managed to add classy prop Coenie Oothsuizen and World Rugby Player of the Year Nominee from 2014, Wille le Roux. Despite possible worthy challenges from the Stormers and Bulls, at this stage it’s hard to see any other South African outfit taking the conference off the Sharks.
2nd – Western Stormers
After the departure of Springbok stalwart Jean de Villiers, the Stormers are now fully into rebuilding mode, and have some nice pieces to start with. The Cape Town based club will be hoping it can hold onto young stars Eben Etzebeth, Cornal Hendricks, Damian de Allende and Cheslin Kolbe, while the inspirational Schalk Burger enters into what is almost certainly his final campaign.
There are still some holes for the Stormers – uncertainty at fly-half may leave the team vulnerable in the playmaking department for this season, and a change at the top from long-time mentor Allister Coetzee to Robbie Fleck will take some adjusting. Most pundits have the Stormers finishing uncharacteristically low and out of the finals. Unfortunately for fans from the west of the country, this looks likely considering the strength of the competition.
3rd – Northern Bulls
The Northern Bulls are lucky enough to have a man some have already hailed the world’s best fly-half at only age 21. Unfortunately, Handre Pollard will miss the entire rugby season after a freak accident at training during a passing drill resulted in ruptured knee ligaments. While it is a mighty blow for the Pretoria club, especially after the departure of super coach Frans Ludeke, the club still boasts an intimidating roster capable of causing a dent in the competition even without the creativity of ‘Handre the Giant’.
Adriaan Strauss, Francois Hougaard and Bjorn Basson are some of the clubs’ headline acts, with young Springboks Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel looking to soon enter the best years of their career. Whilst this is a year that will not likely result in fulfilled expectations for the Northern Transvaal, expect the current crop of players to build a great understanding with each other which will instill Pollard with even more confidence when he returns from injury.
4th – Golden Lions
The Golden Lions defied many people’s low expectations last year under the leadership of coach Johan Ackermann and captain Warren Whitely, finishing a respectable eighth, including second in the South African conference – their highest finish since 2001.
Similar minor miracles will not be expected this year in an expanded competition, but don’t be surprised if the Lions again defy expectations and target Ackermann – 2014 SARU Coach of the Year – as the potential new Springboks head coach. They don’t have much at their disposal in the way of star power – just a total of 10 international caps in the squad – but at their best they boast a poised offence with confident ball-players all across the attacking line in the mould of – dare I say it – the All Blacks. It’s fair to not expect much from a team so bereft of household names, but come your team’s turn to play the Lions, you better not take the assignment lightly.
5th – Central Cheetahs
The Central Cheetahs are another South African squad that is welcoming in a new head coach this year – Franco Smith, also currently the boss of the club’s Currie Cup side. With the appointment the Cheetahs have gone for, it’s clear to see where their focus is – developing their young rugby players from Currie Cup quality to Super Rugby quality and beyond. It’s a bold, innovative appointment and I like it. However, this is about where the compliments stop for the Free State. The team features only one Springbok, hulking lock Lood de Jager, and of their Super Rugby caliber players, very few have played double-digits worth of games. It’s going to be a yearlong fight for the once promising Cheetahs. Their finals appearance of 2013 featuring Springbok flop Johan Goosen seems oh so long ago from where they are now.
6th – Southern Kings
To be fair, no one expects a whole lot from the Southern Kings this year. Their first year back in the league, they have made some savvy signings, such as Namibian fly-half Thenus Kotze and capable fullback Jurgen Visser. Besides a few other under-20s Springbok stars, the article can basically end here for the Kings. The main goal for their season will be to either equal or better their first season total of 3 wins, 13 losses. After a tumultuous start to their re-inclusion in the league, all Super Rugby fans will hope they can at least get a foothold in the competition this year to at least ensure the short-term survival of the Port Elizabeth based franchise.