In the first of our Super Rugby previews ahead of the upcoming season, we look at the runners and riders in the Africa 1 conference.
As part of the league’s overhaul, there are now two African conferences, whilst the New Zealand and Australia conferences have remained the same.
The Africa 1 conference includes last season’s top side from South Africa, the Stormers as well as three time Super Rugby champions, the Bulls. The Cheetahs are coming off the back of another poor season and they will hope to finish ahead of one of the competitions new sides, the Sunwolves. The new Japanese outfit include a fair amount of the Japanese squad who took part in last year’s World Cup, and will be hoping to lay down a marker in their debut Super Rugby season.
There has been change aplenty for the Pretoria-based franchise on the back of last year’s disappointing campaign. The three-time champions finished ninth in the overall table, losing nine of their 16 matches.
The Bulls have a new coach in Nollis Marais who has coached the youth sides to plenty of success over the past couple of years. Hooker Adriaan Strauss will skipper the side, and his experience will be key following the loss of stalwarts Victor Matfield and Pierre Spies who have both chosen to play in Europe. The side also lost 22-year-old flanker Jacques du Plessis, who joined Spies at Montpellier on a two-year contract after emerging for the Bulls last season.
The team is still blessed with young talent in the backline despite losing Handre Pollard for the season with knee ligament damage. Rudy Paige will have to become a leader from scrum-half, to get the likes of Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel on the front foot where they will be able to show off their growing talents.
Overall this has the making of a transitional season for the side who play at Loftus Versfeld. Despite the loss of pack stalwarts, and Pollard to injury, they should still be able to compete in a relatively weak conference and could flirt with a playoff spot.
The Cheetahs are another franchise who have had a large chunk of last season’s side rippled away from them. Heinrich Brussow and Willie le Roux are both massive losses to the team from the Free State, whilst the likes of Sarel Pretorious, Cornal Hendricks and Coenie Oosthuizen have also moved to pastures new.
Franco Smith is set for his first full season in charge after taking over from long-standing head coach Naka Drotske. Smith has admitted that the Cheetahs are pretty much starting from scratch this year after having many of their stars leave the province. The Cheetahs hierarchy showed patience with Drotske who struggled to build a winning side, which should give Smith confidence that he will be given time to make an impression.
One man who does remain, and will be key to any success under Smith, is Springbok second-row Lood de Jager. A lot will be expected from the totem pole lock forward after his standout performances during South Africa's surge to the World Cup semi-finals. 21-year-old winger Sergeal Petersen also has the potential to excite with his blistering speed, which will be unleashed if the forwards can provide enough ball for him to attack with.
Following the off-season struggles, it would not be a surprise to see the Cheetahs nearer the bottom of the overall ladder. One of their main aims will be holding off the new Japanese franchise, to avoid ending the season at the foot of the Africa 1 conference.
After finishing top of a relatively poor South African conference last season, the pressure will be on the Stormers to repeat the feet and grab another playoff spot this time around. That task became tougher when Duane Vermeulen announced that he would be heading to France to play for Toulon. The side also lost starters Dimitri Catrakilis and Steven Kitshoff to Montpellier, whilst Jean de Villiers has decided to enjoy the back end of his career at the Leicester Tigers.
Just like the previous South African sides profiled, the Stormers have a new head coach in place, in the form of former Spingbok back Robbie Fleck. Previously he was assistant coach with the Cape Town province, and he has now taken full reigns of the side from Allister Coetzee who has moved to Japan to coach the Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers.
The signing of Pieter-Steph du Toit from the Sharks is a huge coup and should help deal with the loss of Vermeulen to some extent, as well as reinforcing an already dominant Stormers front eight. Du Toit who can cover the second and back row, adds to the group of forwards which already includes Schalk Burger, Siya Kolisi, Nizaam Carr and Eben Etzebeth who share a vast amount of Super Rugby experience.
In a huge boost for the Stormers, co-captain Juan de Jongh and Cheslin Kolbe have reportedly each completed their stints with the South African Sevens side, and should remain with the province throughout the Super Rugby season. The pair have played in the first four legs of this year's Sevens series, which will be enough for them to gain selection for the Rio Olympic later in the year and allow them to play for the Stormers throughout the Super Rugby season.
Seabelo Senatla will continue to drop in-and-out due to his full-time commitment to the Blitzbokke, but the Stormers aren’t short for cover in the wing positions, with Dilyn Leyds and new-signing Cornal Hendricks as devastating as there is in open space. De Jongh will share the captaincy with prop forward Frans Malherbe who Fleck has identified as underrated leader in the group.
For the Stormers to be contenders once more, they will have to cope in the early part of the season without star centre Damian de Allende who is currently plying his trade in Japan. Once he returns, the Stormers look to be the side to beat in Africa 1 if their forwards remain healthy and dominant.
Unfortunately for the Sunwolves and the competition as a whole, the top Japanese players have decided to play elsewhere, so the new Super Rugby franchise is anything but star-studded. World Cup standout’s Michael Leitch (Chiefs), Amanaki Mafi (Bath) and Ayumu Goromaru (Reds) will not be amongst the players to make history as part of the first Asian side to play in one of the sport’s premier tournaments.
One player in the squad who does have previous Super Rugby experience is skipper, Shota Horie. The hooker played 18 matches for the Melbourne Rebels two years ago, who are the same side which new Sunwolves prop Keita Inagaki made a solitary appearance for last season.
Former Hurricanes head coach Mark Hammett will take charge of the new look outfit who have included Samoan fly-half Tusi Pisi and American flanker Andrew Durutalo in their first squad. Out wide, the team will need to get the ball into the hands of the prolific Akihito Yamada who has made an excellent to his international career with an average of nearly a try-a-game.
The Sunwolves will play the majority of their home games in Tokyo, whilst also taking a couple of their matches to the Singapore National Stadium. The move by SANZAR to incorporate them into Super Rugby is fantastic for development of the sport in Asia ahead of the 2019 World Cup in Japan. There has however been criticism from some quarters due to the continued expansion of the league, and the only way to quieten them will be for the Sunwolves to pick up some victories in what is sure to be an exciting season.