*This was written as next weeks column for UCT’s fortnightly newspaper
Yes folks, it’s that time of the year, the 2013 Vodacom Super 15 is back for another instalment of explosive hits, dazzling tries, and arguably the world’s finest rugby players slugging it out for Southern Hemisphere supremacy.
It’s been 20 years since rugby’s top three nations; New Zealand, South Africa and Australia first participated in what has become the world’s premier provincial/club competition.
Back then it what known as the Super 10, rugby was still amateur, people didn’t have cellphones and Francois Pienaar’s Transvaal (now the Lions) beat Sean Fitzpatrick’s Auckland (now the Blues) at Ellis Park in a dramatic 20-17 humdinger of a final – a precursor to the epic 1995 World Cup final perhaps?
Fast forward to the present tense and the world is a different beast. The Lions have made way for the much-maligned Kings due to controversial circumstances which triggered a hate campaign from SA rugby fans comparable towards Kiwi referee, Bryce Lawrence, after his shocking display in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal match against Australia.
The Kings are expected to bomb spectacularly and will look forward to a playoff challenge against the Lions for a place in next year’s competition. At least for now, they’ll bring some much-appreciated topflight rugby to Nelson Mandela Bay and the Eastern Cape region. It’ll be great to see former UCT flyhalf and 2011 FNB Varsity Cup Champion, Demetri ‘The Greek’ Catrakilis, performing a pivotal role in the Kings fortunes.
The rest of the South African conference is too tight to call with the Cheetahs intent on mounting a serious challenge after a promising year of dynamic, no-holds barred rugby in 2012. They’ll enjoy having stars like Heinrich Brussouw, Johan Goosen, Sarel Pretorius, Adriaan Strauss, Willie le Roux and the sensational Ghanaian-born Raymond Rhule within their ranks. If their players remain injury free, then Bloemfontein will be a graveyard for the Aussie and Kiwi teams.
The other three SA franchises, the Sharks, Bulls and Stormers are blessed with talented squads that supply the bulk of the Springbok team. Their strength in depth allows them to be competitive throughout the year, and with the Lions being snubbed in favour of the Kings, all three teams have benefited by snapping up their stars.
The Stormers are the biggest beneficiaries with star Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute, Pat Cilliers and Michael Rhodes bolstering a very talented squad. Jantjies creativity and playmaking abilities will make a massive difference to the Stormers who only managed to score a dismal 28 tries in 16 games – the lowest of all 15 teams. He’ll need great service which comes in the form of UCT’s very own Nic Groom, who made up the other half of a championship winning combination with Catrakilis for UCT in 2011 and WP in the 2012 Currie Cup final.
Cape Town’s finest are genuine contenders for the title and this might be their year, although don’t write off the Sharks, who, after a disappointing year of stumbling at the last hurdle, will be hard to beat at home and have no fear when touring Australasia. Away wins are like gold dust and the Sharks are ably equipped to claim a few scalps abroad.
After two years of playing fullback for the Sharks, Patrick Lambie will play flyhalf, and if last year’s Bok performances are anything to go by, then the young pivot and Springbok incumbent will be an integral part of a potential championship win. The Sharks will also enjoy having the services of Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn back from injury and French club rugby respectively.
The dark horses are definitely the Bulls. An indifferent 2012 season for Morne Steyn might bring out the best in the Bulls and their Springbok discard. Make no mistake, it’s never easy going to Loftus and Steyn’s lethal boot will punish any team. The Bulls pride themselves on squeezing out the life of visiting teams with relentless tactical kicking and a confident Steyn will be their kingpin.
The Bulls will also enjoy the services of promising speedster, Lionel Mapoe, who joins from the Lions. Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, flying winger Bjorn Basson and SA under-20 star Jan Serfontein make up the balance and will provide the Bulls with enough firepower to become serious contenders come the business end of the competition.
The New Zealand conference will be just as tight with all five franchises equally capable of cup success. The Blues have a new coach in legendary All Black winger John Kirwan, and can only get better after last year’s disaster. The Crusaders are always in the mix – although Richie McCaw will be on sabbatical – and have plenty of quality depth within their ranks. The Hurricanes possess some choice All Black regulars but will miss Cory Jane’s searing pace on the wing.
Last year’s champions, the Chiefs, say goodbye to Sonny Bill Williams and their Tongan prop Sona Taumalolo who scored nine tries and was joint third on the list of top try scorers for 2012. They’ll struggle, but there’s enough big game experience to see them through to the playoff stage. The Highlanders have acquired the services of Ma’a Nonu and – human tree trunk – Brad Thorn for one more crack at Super 15 rugby. They were much-improved last year and could be a shoo-in for the finals.
I won’t bore you with the Australian conference – it’s diluted and their inferior pool of players will struggle this year with the British and Irish Lions tour just over three months away. But I’ll stick my head out and call Jake White’s Brumbies to be competitive in the playoffs even though the Lions tour will testAustralia’s resources in terms of depth. The Reds won’t cope without the injured Will Genia – leaving the South African and New Zealand franchises to fight over the three remaining playoff berths.
Catch the Stormers taking on the champion Chiefs in their first home fixture of the year at Newlands Rugby Stadium on Saturday 2nd March at 5pm.