When he was asked this week which teams would be the Stormers’ biggest obstacle to success in the Super 14 that kicks off next week, Jean de Villiers came up with a surprising answer.
Gavin Rich writes in the Cape Argus that after years of mostly providing at best one challenger and then a whole lot of also-rans and whipping boys, the Stormers captain believes that 2009 will see a highly competitive showing from all of the South African teams.
And while it should not come as a shock that De Villiers fingers both the Sharks and Bulls, the finalists from two years ago, as likely challengers, it should be a mild surprise that he rates the Lions, who finished last in 2008 and who many overseas critics are predicting to do so again.
“I have been looking at the squads that all the franchises have available to them this year, and there is a lot of depth and quality that maybe wasn’t in evidence before,” said De Villiers.
“I really think that this could be a year where we see a big showing from all the local sides. The Sharks are always up there, the Bulls should be contenders again, and we made a lot of progress last year.
“Even the Cheetahs and the Lions, teams that may have struggled before, look quite well equipped now, but particularly the Lions. If you look at the players they have, they certainly shouldn’t be an easy team to beat, and I reckon they will knock some good teams over.”
If the Lions did cause a few shocks, it would not be the first time, and neither would it be the first time they have picked up some momentum in this most arduous of competitions.
In 2007 the Lions did the Sharks and Bulls a favour by knocking over the Crusaders in Johannesburg, and they also scored two rare wins in Australasia.
They ran out of momentum when they returned home after their tour, with the Stormers halting their charge in Cape Town on Easter Saturday, but De Villiers is right when he says they have greater depth this year.
Although they have lost Jaco Pretorius to the Bulls, this loss is off-set by the return to fitness of Jaque Fourie.
The first choice Springbok outside centre at the World Cup was out for most of last season with injury but started to make up ground on incumbent Adi Jacobs with some strong performances towards the end of the Currie Cup and on the overseas tour.
The departure of Joe van Niekerk overseas has also been well covered by the emergence of the promising and physically imposing No8 Willem Alberts and a smattering of other good loose-forwards looking to fit into the mix with Alberts and skipper Cobus Grobbelaar.
Coach Eugene Eloff is confident Jannes Labuschagne, back in rugby after two years in retirement, will regain the authority that made him a Springbok a few years ago.
If he does, he will add spine to an already big and authoritative tight five, with Lawrence Sephaka returning to add to an already impressive pool of props.
But it is the return of Ande Pretorius from his own injury problems that date back now to well before the 2007 World Cup that could transform the Lions from an average combination into a dangerous one.
Earl Rose, who made great progress last year at flyhalf, can just as easily be used at fullback, with Louis Ludik shifting to wing.
Eloff was encouraged by his team’s seven try to three thrashing of the Bulls in a warm-up game, but it needs to be recalled that the Bulls were fielding a second string team.
Realistically you wouldn’t expect the Lions to challenge for a semi-final place, but they could be in contention in the middle stages of the competition, and a strong showing from them will help the South African momentum ahead of the tour here by the British and Irish Lions immediately after the Super 14.
The Cheetahs beat the Bulls in Polokwane the other night to advertise their credentials, but as always the big question hovering over them is their depth, something that is crucial for a team to maintain a consistent challenge.
From a national viewpoint what is exciting about the Cheetahs, apart from the continuing good form of their fetcher Heinrich Brussow and the continuing progress of Jonghi Nokwe, is coach Naka Drotske’s decision to move Meyer Bosman from inside centre back to flyhalf.
It will be recalled that Bosman made his debut for the Springboks at flyhalf under Jake White in 2005 while still a green 21-year-old.
He was one of the best No12s in the country in last year’s Super 14, but with Jean de Villiers established in that position in the Bok team, Bosman might be the man to put pressure on Ruan Pienaar and presumably Bath based Butch James for the green and gold No10.
Pienaar’s performances at flyhalf, and coach John Plumtree’s decisiveness in making a call on which of Pienaar or Frans Steyn should play in that position, could hold the key to the Sharks’ chances of following up their strong challenges of the past few years by getting their hands on the trophy.
The Sharks management felt they broke through a barrier when they won the Currie Cup last year,breaking a 12-year drought in terms of silverware at King’s Park, and Plumtree has been pro-active in employing a fellow Kiwi as backline coach as well as bringing in former Australian league legend Andrew John for a couple of weeks.
The Sharks have lost Frederic Michalak, which is why flyhalf will be in the spotlight, but they do have depth in most areas, and they seem to play more pragmatic and structured rugby under Plumtree than under Dick Muir.
They will be a tough obstacle for the Stormers, who with the Bulls are also title contenders, at Newlands next Saturday.
The big question hovering over the Stormers is their depth at lock and maybe front-row and outside centre, but if they can remain relatively free of injury, they should again be the team that rivals the Sharks for the right to call themselves the South African flag-bearers in the competition.
The Bulls were champions two years ago and have Victor Matfield back, so while their inability to match the Sharks in last year’s Currie Cup final was disappointing, and they do miss the influence of Heyneke Meyer, they are now into their second season under Frans Ludeke.
Another reason they should be more settled this year is that they don’t have as many players absent through injury at the start of the season as in the corresponding stage of 2008, and the uncertainty created by the wrangling with Toulon over Bakkies Botha’s contract is now behind them.
Most significantly of all, the Bulls showed towards the end of last year’s competition that they were starting to adapt to the demands made on them by the hybrid ELVs, so they should not encounter the early setbacks they did in 2008, and the same should be said of the Stormers.
Springbok coach Peter de Villiers was wrong when he predicted three SA teams in the Super 14 semi-finals last year, such a suggestion now might not come across as quite so laughableTweet