This year’s Super 14 is bound to be full of surprises. There’s been a mass exodus of quality players from the Southern Hemisphere, and the powers-that-be have been tinkering with the rules.
Here is my team-by-team guide for the tournament and my view on how they will fare.
The most successful side in this competition, the Crusaders will again be a force. They’ve managed to cling on to Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, whislt adding All Black lock Ali Williams to their armoury. It’s coach Robbie Deans last season in charge before he takes over the reigns in Australia, so expect to see some clever analysis and manipulation of the new rule book.
After finishing top of the league after the regular season last year, and playing some of the best rugby, the Sharks will want another successful season. Despite losing John Smit, Butch James and Percy Montgomery, they have a strong coaching setup that will guide the team through the law changes, and in new signing (mercurial) Frederic Michalak, they have a potential match-winner and should make the playoffs.
On paper, this team should be there or thereabouts at the end of the season and we expect to see them in the playoffs at least. With a back row of Jerry Collins (no, he hasn’t signed for Barnstaple), Rodnery So’oialo and Chris Masoe, they should win plenty of ball to release strong runners like Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith out wide.
The Blues waved goodbye to Luke McAlister and Doug Howlett at the end of last season, but they will still be a threat this year. With solid foundations in the front five, courtesy of Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Troy Flavell, they also have devastating pace out wide in the shape of Joe Rokocoko and Isaia Toeava. Renowned coach David Nucifora will offer his expert interpretation of the ELVs and the Blues will be difficult to beat.
Last year’s champions will defend their crown with passion, but having lost Victor Matfield and their coach Heyneke Meyer, they will be up against it. They do, however, have World Cup-winners Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez and Bakkies Botha, whilst Pierre Spies will hopefully be back to his best.
The New South Wales side is an exciting attacking prospect, but may not have the pack to make it to the business end of the competition – a bit like Australia in the World Cup. Having missed most of last season with a knee injury, Phil Waugh returns to lead a talented side that contains big names like Rocky Elsom and Lote Tuquiri, and will be looking at a place in the top half of the table.
The Queensland outfit could be a team to watch this season after underachieving in recent years, notably in 2007 when they finished rock bottom. With Rodzilla leading the way in the front row, Chris Latham looking for success in his swansong season, and Australia’s next big thing, Berrick Barnes, they have some exciting talent and a mid-table finish would be a good showing after last year.
The chiefs do not boast too many household names (except Sitiveni Sivivatu and Mils Muliaina, of course), but they are always a passionate side and particularly difficult to beat at home. They won’t make the playoffs, but they won’t be the worst side in the competition.
Widely tipped to be one of the most improved sides under Rassie Erasmus, the Stormers have some quality players but have significantly underachieved in this competition. Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger are the mainstays of a side that will be a tough proposition playing in Cape Town, but will struggle to win away.
Finished 9th last season and will probably end up in a similar position this year. They have lost a few players and will introduce a host of rookies which will give them a big pack, but without any real penetration out wide – they will struggle against the top teams.
New coach Naka Drotske will be looking to build a team to be reckoned with around a solid pack that contains CJ van der Linde and Juan Smith. With Marius Joubert out wide, they have some firepower, but it’s difficult to see this side finishing outside the bottom half of the table.
Another team that lacks enough depth to compete at the top end, the Lions may be the whipping boys in 2008. They are without Andre Pretorius and Jacques Fourie, and while sevens star Jaco Pretorius might light up the field on the odd occasion, the Lions just don’t have the quality.
The Brumbies will sorely miss George Gregan, Stephen Larkham and Jeremy Paul, whilst Stirling Mortlock will miss the first half of the season. There will be too much work for George Smith to do up front, and with little threat in the backs, the Brumbies could be propping up the table this season.
After a turbulent pre-season, former All Black coach John Mitchell will continue to build a team around captain Nathan Sharpe and Wallabies Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell. However, there does not seem to be the strength in depth to challenge at the top of the league, and they’ll probably end up in the bottom 4.
Anyone wants to be this season’s bookie? -ed-