Outside of the Lions, there was not much to write home about for South African rugby in 2016.
Disappointing Super Rugby campaigns, followed by a Springbok loss in Rome left a bitter taste in the mouth, and the players and management in the Republic will be hoping to hit back with a vengeance.
That begins in club rugby, and with a British and Irish Lions tour set to distract the Kiwi franchises there is no time better than 2017 for South African sides to regain some confidence.
Lions can lead the way for South Africa once more thanks to softer schedule
After taking Super Rugby by storm in 2016, the pressure is now on the Lions to prove they are not one-season wonders. Johan Ackermann’s side produced a style of rugby not often seen by South African franchises, and now that they get to face Australian opponents rather than the Kiwis in 2017 there is no reason they shouldn’t be aiming to better the 11 wins they picked up last year.
Warwick Tecklenburg has retired and will need replacing in the back-row, while the neck dislocation suffered by prop forward Julian Redelinghuys has seen him ruled him out for the 2017 campaign in a massive blow to the Johannesburg side.
In terms of incomings, lock forward Marvin Orie should help the lineout following his move from the Bulls, while Kwagga Smith has joined full-time following a stint playing for the South African Sevens, yet apart from that the squad remains much the same.
That is not necessarily a bad thing considering the way the Lions finished last season. After knocking out both the Crusaders and Highlanders in home playoff wins, they fell just short at the final hurdle when losing to the Hurricanes for the overall crown, yet it was a season of huge progress which should set them up well for the foreseeable future.
A number of stars were unearthed including centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg and hooker Malcolm Marx, with fellow Lions, Jaco Kriel, Faf de Klerk and Ruan Combrinck among the best players in their position in the Southern Hemisphere. Inspirational leader Warren Whiteley will lead the side into battle once more, with one more step needed to complete their ascendancy to the top step of Super Rugby.
Prediction: Will top the overall African conference once again, yet will fall just short in the playoffs once again.
Young guns ready to help Sharks rise
If there was one team which summed-up South African rugby’s malaise in 2016 it would be the Sharks. On the face of it, nine wins from 15 round robin matches is impressive, yet the real story was one of struggle and a team well short of where they need to be to challenge the premier Super Rugby outfits.
In 2017, the Sharks are led by a new head coach in Robert du Preez who has taken over from Gary Gold, and will concentrate more on their future especially in what could be a vibrant back-line. Curwin Bosch looks like the real deal and should start the season as first-choice full-back, while centre Jeremy Ward has been pulling up trees for South Africa’s under-20 team and can help supplement the loss of La Rochelle’s Paul Jordaan.
Willie Le Roux, Marcell Coetzee and JP Pietersen are other Springboks who have headed for Europe and will need replacing, with experienced French full-back Clement Poitrenaud among the new faces. Lukhanyo Am has also joined from the Kings and if his form from the back-end of 2016 can be replicated then he can make a difference for the Durban-side.
Pat Lambie and Tendai Mtawarira still remain with the Sharks and will be relied upon in the big matches, while twins Jean-Luc and Dan Du Preez should continue to impress in a back-row which has options aplenty.
Prediction: Ward and Bosch will help invigorate a Sharks fan base desperate for success, but won’t be able to make ground on Lions, leaving them chasing a wildcard spot once more.
Jaguares in desperate need of improvement during second season
With high hopes coming into their debut season, four wins and 11 defeats was not the outcome many were expecting when Argentinian franchise, the Jaguares landed a spot in Super Rugby. The squad resembles much of the first choice Puma side yet there were times last season when they were outmatched by their opponents even at their home ground in Buenos Aires.
Head coach Raul Perez has overseen an offseason of very little change, with a couple of fringe players leaving and a sprinkling of local players joining the squad. There is one major headache however, with Facundo Isa’s availability for the season in doubt due to his impending move to France, and the latest news is that he is currently training away from the squad.
Isa would be the Jaguares most important player, yet there is still some wonderful talent in the squad including the likes of Pablo Matera, Santiago Cordero and Joaquin Tuculet, with half-backs Nicolas Sanchez and the currently-injured Martin Landajo able to dominate any game on their day.
Making their home ground a fortress is essential for the Jaguares to have any success in 2017, with a run of fixtures against the Australian franchises during the second half of the season likely to dictate how pundits will look back on this campaign.
Prediction: Doubts over Isa’s availability and Landajo’s injury could hamper them early in the season, but if youngsters like Marcos Kremer breakthrough they can easily better the four wins secured in 2016.
New-look Kings to be among basement sides once more
The Southern Kings are very much a team in flux, with 67 player transactions, at the last count, having taken place since the end of last season. Deon Davids side managed to collect two wins in 2016 which saw them finish 17th out of 18 in the overall table, and a repeat of that should be seen as a success.
The Port Elizabeth outfit have been unable to hold on to any of their stars apart from blindside flanker CJ Velleman, with other standouts such as Lukhanyo Am and Edgar Maratulle finding their way onto other South African franchises ahead of the new season, while James Hall is now at Oyonnax in France.
Wandile Mjekevu flashed during his fleeting appearances at the back-end of last season and could be the next player to force a move if he can replicate the try-scoring form he produced in France with Perpignan.
Prediction: With so much change it will be tough for the Kings to better their 2016 win total and they will be battling against finishing bottom of the overall log.