One of the most vexing thing about the South African teams and their assault on the holy grail that is the Super 14 trophy, tends to be the fact that so much of our play and structure is built around a small core of hyper-talented individuals. Remove the individual, for whatever reason and the team falls apart. Let’s look at the five players, one from each team, whose continued fitness and participation is absolutely vital to any hope of a successful challenge.
For the Bulls, it is, unsurprisingly, Victor Matfield around whom their campaign hinges. We saw last year that the Tshwane lads are quite simply a different team when the big bearded one is at the helm. With Big Vic calling the shots and glaring manfully at the ref, they tend to keep their focus and structure; without him, they revert to a disorganised rabble, more intent on winning the fight than the match. The added effect of Matfield’s de facto stand-in, Fourie du Preez going badly off the boil when burdened with the captaincy and the loss of Wikus van Heerden means that without Matfield fit and on top of his game for 13 rounds, the Bulls aren’t going to go anywhere. Even Bakkies Botha turns into a lovesick puppy without his partner in crime, rather than the brutal enforcer that we know and, well, like. One wonders, given the Bulls’ good run in the Currie Cup last year, after a disastrous Super 14, whether Victor himself isn’t doing a fair share of the coaching while Frans Ludeke spends his time carrying tackle bags…
The Lions are putting a lot of store in the fact that both Andre Pretorius and Jaque Fourie will be fit for this year’s campaign. The Joburgers are never short of a pack of committed forwards; it’s those behind them that tend to look rudderless without a decent general. Petoors will continue to play the roles of the good, the bad and the injured this season as he always does, leaving the ice cool Fourie the play the role of the backline general. Mossie brings a dangerous edge to any side he plays in and his effortless genius tends to rub off on those around him. Expect the Lions backs to feed off his energy and prove far more dangerous this year than they were without him in 2008 – but watch how the wheels will fall off if, for whatever reason, the big Bok is no longer there to steer the ship.
The Cheetahs are a team of no-namers held together by the force of nature that is their skipper, Juan Smith. The only regular Springbok starter in the team since the departure of CJ van der Linde, Smith really is the glue that binds the men in white together. When fit, motivated and uninjured, he forms the lynch pin in what could potentially be one of the finest loose trios on display in this year’s competition. He is prone to the occasional form slump, though and this effect is also felt by those around him. For the Cheetahs to endure anything other than an absolutely abysmal Super 14 campaign, Bloemfontein’s finest son needs to turn in a campaigns-worth of performances quite literally out of the topmost drawer.
The Stormers are another side who lean incredibly heavily on their captain. Jean de Villiers is their play maker and backline general and of all the departing Springboks that turned the Super 14 contenders into Currie Cup jokes last year, one feels it was de Villiers’ absence that caused the most damage. The Stormers have enough quality loose forwards on their books to make do without the services of their other talisman, Schalk Burger, if required. They do not have another centre that can hold a candle to de Villiers, though, nor do they have another suitable candidate for the captaincy. Luke Watson is poison to team morale, while AJ Venter will not make the starting team on merit. Only Gcobani Bobo could possibly fill the great man’s shoes as a skipper, although he too looks old and slow without de Villiers’ guiding presence at inside centre. Mark my words, they day the Stormers’ 2009 campaign falls flat will be the day Jean de Villiers goes down. Stormers fans will be praying that doesn’t happen.
The Sharks, alone, don’t have issues when it comes to captaincy, having not one, but two Springbok captains of recent vintage in their ranks. Although one is tempted to say that the loss of Johann Muller to a long-term injury would seriously knock a huge hole in their tight five, I feel there is a different player who is totally irreplaceable and vital to the cause this year. Ruan Pienaar is the only flyhalf of genuine Super 14 quality in the squad and should he go down, the knock-on effect would have dire consequences for the backline synergy as well severely testing the depth available. Without Pienaar, we face the sire prospect of a backline containing Frans Steyn at flyhalf, Adi Jacobs at inside centre and the young Riaan Swanepoel (or possibly Waylon Murray) on the outside. The other option is for either Len Olivier or Monty Dumond to step up and show they have what it takes as a Super 14 flyhalf – a big gamble considering both are uncapped at this level. No, the fact remains that the success of the Sharks’ campaign this year is very tightly interwoven with the success and longevity of Pienaar’s hold on the flyhalf jersey.Tweet