Stormers coach Allister Coetzee expects older, wiser and more settled South African teams to perform better in the 2014 Super Rugby season after they were put in the shade by their New Zealand and Australian counterparts last year.
Only the Bulls looked genuine contenders in 2013, outperforming low expectations, but the Pretoria-based side were ultimately undone by the guile of Canberra’s Brumbies in the semi-finals of the southern hemisphere competition.
The Cheetahs punched above their weight to scrape into the playoffs in sixth position, but for the Stormers (seventh), Sharks (eighth) and Kings (15th) it was a season of disappointment.
Johannesburg’s Lions have replaced the Kings in the South Africa conference this season and may struggle after a year out in the wilderness.
Coetzee, however, forecast a stronger challenge from South Africa this campaign, including his own Cape Town-based side who conceded the least number of points in 2013 yet still missed the playoffs as they battled in attack.
“In general I would say the South African teams will be stronger,” Coetzee said.
“I was looking through the squads the other day and to me they all look to be settled squads who, a year on from last year, should be more mature.
“I am very happy with where we are at compared to last year, especially if you look at our front row. We have exciting young talent in there and more depth.”
The return of Schalk Burger, two years after playing his last Super Rugby match has also given a lift to the entire squad. He has proven his fitness in warm-up matches over the past few weeks.
“Schalk played 80 minutes against the Bulls at altitude and then another 40 against the (Southern) Kings this past weekend,” Coetzee said.
“There is no doubt about his fitness, he is injury-free with no niggles and looks in great shape.
“In our pack there is a lot of competition, from flank to hooker and right across the front row.
“That is very healthy for us.”
Coetzee is also pleased with a new rule this year that allows teams to pick 23-man squads.
“The new rule means that you can pick an entire front row on the bench and have more options in that department. T
“That will be important as the season goes on,” he said.
The Stormers have a bye in the opening weekend before starting their campaign against the Lions at Ellis Park (February 22) followed by a home clash with the Hurricanes (February 28).
The side then face a daunting tour with matches against four of Australasia’s top teams.
Apart from away games against the double defending champion Chiefs and the runner-up Brumbies, the Stormers will also play New Zealand’s heavyweight Crusaders and the Brisbane-based Reds in a road trip that could make or break their title hopes.