All the talk in South Africa ahead of the opening of the Super Rugby season this weekend has been the Kings and their prospects for success. It was a long, drawn-out procedure to get the Kings in the competition, including strong objections from all the current South African teams to the idea of relegation. In the end Cheeky Watson got his long-desired wish to see top-flight rugby in the Eastern Cape. However, due to the process of getting into the competition the Kings haven’t loaded their squad the way they would have liked. That’s unfortunate considering the amount of talent on hand in South Africa but that’s the way it is.
Let’s take a look at all the South African teams ahead of this weekend’s openers.
Stormers (semi-finalists, first overall, first in South African conference)-
After finishing at the top of the regular season table last year the Stormers went into the playoffs with an expectation of reaching the final. However, a semi-final loss to the Sharks halted those dreams. This year the Stormers return their core group of players in an attempt to make up for last year’s disappointment. JP du Plessis, Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Burger, and Gio Aplon all return. Additionally, the team has brought in several players from the relegated Lions, including Elton Jantjies and Jaco Taute. Things don’t start off easily for the Stormers with matches against the Bulls, Sharks, and Chiefs in the first three weeks, and if they can stay healthy there is no reason the Stormers can’t win any of those matches and repeat last year’s strong season. One item to keep an eye on this season is Bryan Habana, who will play playing with the club but has agreed to join Toulon at the end of the season.
Bulls (first round, fifth overall, second in South African conference)-
Like the Stormers, the Bulls had a strong regular season but disappointed in the playoffs. The Bulls picked up some notable wins last season but also let some matches they should have won slip away. To fix the problem the Bulls have made a number changes, including picking players from the Lions. These players may not have an immediate impact in the starting lineup but they should provide depth throughout a long season. If the Bulls are going to go deeper in the playoffs this year they will have to get more out of players like Morne Steyn, Zane Kirchner, and Pierre Spies.
Sharks (lost in the final, sixth overall, third in South African conference)-
The Sharks did well in the regular season but their 2012 will be remembered more for their run to the final. Due to the success the Sharks haven’t made many changes to their team. Out are Alistair Hargreaves and Frederic Michalak while Butch James and Franco van der Merwe have been added. James will battle with up and coming Pat Lambie for the fly-half position. It was the pace that drove the Sharks to the final and with Jannie du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira returning, they should be dominant once again. For the Sharks to improve they will have to make the most out of Francois Steyn’s boot and play mistake free rugby.
Cheetahs (no playoffs, tenth overall, fourth in South African conference)-
It was a fairly forgettable season for the Cheetahs last year. No playoffs and few wins. In an effort to improve the team has brought in a long list of players but none of them eye popping. The Cheetahs will be relying on these new players to give a jolt to some of the veterans on the squad. That will be tough. The introduction of the Kings will help in the standings but the Cheetahs likely haven’t don’t enough to catch the other teams in the South Africa. Heinrich Brussow and youngster Johan Goosen will be looked at to lead the squad.
The Kings won the Currie Cup First Division last season but were blown away by the Cheetahs Currie Cup squad in the promotion/relegation playoffs. The Kings haven’t added many players in the meantime and have struggled against non-Super Rugby teams this pre-season. It’s going to be a long season for the Kings and a win or even a drawn may be cause to celebrate. The real goal for the Kings this season will be to produce off the field and to prepare for their potential relegation match against the Lions.
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