Fox Sports rugby guru Greg Clark takes a closer look at the South African conference.
I must say from the outset that I am a big fan of the new-look Super Rugby format.
I will look at the Australian and New Zealand teams in the coming weeks, but first up I’m going to cast an eye over the South African franchises.
The Pretoria-based Bulls side of recent years has to go down as one of the great Super Rugby teams.
With three titles in the past four seasons, the Bulls have been the envy of everyone. A squad full of internationals and an incredible home-ground record. They’re now unbeaten in 18 matches at either Loftus or Orlando Stadium (where 2010’s semi-final and final were played).
But with an aging playing roster, the big question is whether the Bulls can do a ‘three-peat’.
2011 will be the last season that Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez will be together in a Bulls jersey and other experienced players will follow them into retirement or abroad.
They will again rely heavily on point-scoring fly half Morne Steyn and if he gets injured they could be in a spot of bother.
The Cheetahs from Bloemfontein have been the perennial under-achievers along with their neighbours the Lions.
Their frustrated fans are left scratching their heads every season as the Cheetahs haven’t been able to emulate their good Currie Cup form in Super Rugby. It seems the step up in class is simply too much for them.
A lack of depth is the Cheetahs’ major problem. Sure they have world-class players like Juan Smith and Heinrich Brussow, but there’s not a lot to get excited about after them.
With Smith unavailable at times during 2010 for personal reasons and Brussow ruled out with injury after week four, the Cheetahs were right in the battle for the wooden spoon. They managed to avoid last place but I can’t see them finishing outside the bottom three in 2011.
And then there is John Mitchell.
The former All Blacks and Western Force coach has taken on the job that no one really wanted, as mentor to Johannesburg’s Super Rugby franchise.
Last year the Lions lost all 13 matches, but after taking leave from the Force and helping the Lions in their Currie Cup campaign, Mitchell agreed to stay on in Johannesburg.
He was stabbed in a burglary at his home and even that didn’t deter him from taking on one of the biggest challenges in the game.
The Lions had a much better Currie Cup season and while there is some exciting young talent on the books, I don’t believe they’ll be a major threat in Super Rugby 2011.
They’ll be more competitive at home as they now have more self-belief and have responded to Mitchell’s iron-fisted approach, but a successful team needs game breakers and the Lions are very thin on the ground when it comes to star players.
The Sharks have had the potential to win the title in recent years but they haven’t been able to put it all together when it matters.
They lost the 2007 Super 14 final to the Bulls and after winning the Currie Cup in 2010 the vibes are very good in Durban.
However they’ll need to start Super Rugby better than they did last time out when they lost their first five games. Sure they finished strongly with seven wins but the Sharks left their run too late.
They’ve lost some regulars including Ruan Pienaar and Andy Goode but they’ve gained Jacques Louis Potgieter from the Bulls and Andre Pretorius from Western Force as cover.
Captain John Smit will again struggle to hold down the No.2 jersey ahead of Bismarck du Plessis and the Springboks skipper could find himself playing prop again. If the youngsters in the squad can step up to the Super Rugby level the Sharks will be a threat.
The Stormers from Cape Town fell at the last hurdle in 2010, losing to the Bulls in the Super 14 final.
They lost just one game at Newlands (to the Brumbies) and they’ll be happy with a 2011 schedule that has them playing seven of their first ten games at home.
Their game plan is simple. Smother your opponent with rock solid defence and when the opportunity to attack arises, unleash the scintillating backline.
If there is a worry it’s a lack of depth up front. If the Stormers keep their pack on the paddock it will be one of the best around, but if Schalk Burger, Duane Vermuelen, Andries Becker, Francois Louw, Brok Harris or new recruit CJ van der Linde get injured then they will struggle to fill the gap.
Their challenge is to improve on 2010’s second placing, but as the top visiting teams should now be better equipped to handle the tactics.