When it comes to picking the favourites to lead the South Africa conference the popular vote seems to be split between the Stormers and the Sharks.
The teams that contested in last year’s Currie Cup final appears to have the most depth compared to the other South African franchises with the Sharks also arguably offering the most balanced approach from all SA teams.
While the Bulls are more than capable of reaching the play-off’s, the mantel of SA’s best hope rest with the two coastal franchises.
Depth in Super Rugby is often overstated but there is no doubt that a competition that starts in February and ends in August will test any teams player resources. And it is in this area where the Sharks will be tested from day one with the news that their star Springbok hooker and vice-captain, Bismarck du Plessis will only be fit to join the competition somewhere in April.
Du Plessis confirmed to the Rapport newspaper that although there is no set date for his return, the franchise has put this around mid-April. This could be a potential banana-peal for the Banana-boys as they are known to start their campaigns rather slowly and build steam as the competition progress, but with their draw, a good start is essential for the Sharks.
They open their campaign with what is always a tricky feature away in Bloemfontein before they host the current SA conference champions, the Stormers, at home. From there they will have three relatively easy fixtures (if there is such a thing) playing the new kids on the block the Kings in PE before hosting the Brumbies and the Rebels at home.
The Sharks will have to target a minimum 4 out of 5 wins before they head into a bye and then host the Crusaders in Durban by which time Bismarck could be back.
It is seldom that one man makes a team, but there is also little doubt that Du Plessis is currently one of the most dynamic hookers in world rugby whose contribution in the tight-loose is his biggest asset. While the Sharks have able back-up’s in Craig Burden and Kyle Cooper as hookers, Bismarck’s ability to act as a 4th loose forward scavenging for the ball on the ground gives the team an edge in an area of the game (rucks) which often determines the outcome of matches.
The Stormers also sit with an interesting, if not tricky situation. It has been reported that long-serving Stormers flyhalf, Peter Grant, might be available at the start of the campaign which will leave their coach Allister Coetzee with a difficult decision. Elton Jantjies who enjoyed a stellar season in a poor team in Super Rugby 2012 is currently on loan to the Stormers through the fact that the Lions have been relegated for the 2013 competition. Much has been said about how the talented youngster has been mucked around at Springbok level in 2012 and the last thing Coetzee wants to do is repeat this in 2013.
While Grant has been an able servant of Stormers rugby over the years, he has never been able to kick on or provide an edge to his play or ignite what has always been a very talented backline on paper. Criticism of the Stormers’ play over the last 3 years was on their emphasis on defense (which has been the best of all teams for the last 2 years) at the expense of their ability to attack and score tries. If there is one thing the Stormers can learn from the current Super Rugby champions, the Chiefs, is that balance in attack and defense is crucial if you have any hope to go beyond just reaching a play-off match.
The decisions and direction both the Stormers and the Sharks will take in the opening 5 weeks of this tournament will most likely determine which of them will end up South African conference winners and the team most likely to win the Super Rugby tournament.