Super Rugby 2016 Preview: Africa 2 conference

In the second of our Super Rugby previews, we look at the Africa 2 conference which includes the Jaguares from Argentina

Super Rugby 2016 Preview: Africa 2 conference
The Super Rugby season kicks off this weekend, with the Highlanders looking to defend their trophy (image via: sport24)

Following on from our look at the Africa 1 conference, the second part of Vavel's Super Rugby preview will look at the Africa 2 conference, which includes two new franchises. 

In a move that has been coming for a couple of years, Argentina finally have a professional side playing amongst the elite. The continued rise of the game in the South American country, has seen SANZAR include the Jaguares in Super Rugby, and they look to have put together a mightily impressive squad ahead of their debut campaign. 

The remainder of the conference is made up of South African provinces, including the Kings who are back for their second stint in the competition following relegation in 2013. The Lions and Sharks complete the line-up in the race for a playoff spot. 

Jaguares

Following on from the terrific Rugby World Cup campaign, Argentinian rugby will continue its growth when the Jaguares make their Super Rugby debut this weekend. The side who will be based in Buenos Aires for their home matches have put together an extremely strong squad which should add something different to an already excellent competition. 

A large majority of the squad were with Argentina's World Cup party, including skipper Agustin Creevy as well as half-backs Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez. 22-year-old flankers Pablo Matera and Facundo Isa are destined for big things in the game and should form a strong back-row alongside Leonardo Senatore

Agustin Creevy and Raul Perez will be leading the Jaguares in their maiden Super Rugby campaign (image via: rugby365)
Agustin Creevy and Raul Perez will be leading the Jaguares in their maiden Super Rugby campaign (image via: rugby365)

Without doubt the most exciting prospects in the squad are the two starting wingers. Santiago Cordero took the World Cup by storm, catching the attention of rugby fans around the globe with his fast feet and breakaway speed. On the opposite wing, Manuel Montero may be an even bigger star than his compatriot in the next few years. The large-striding giant missed out on the World Cup due to injury, and will be chomping at the bit to remind fans of his unbelievable talent.

If the likes of Cordero and Montero can get the ball in space, the Jaguares may just shock a few people and reach the playoffs in their first season under head coach Raul Perez. The potential of the Jaguares squad put together is frightening, and if they get off to a fast start in their debut season, they may prove to be too powerful for the rest of the conference. 

Kings 

The Southern Kings return to Super Rugby following a three-year absence on the back of 2013's relegation. The previous team did not fare well, finishing with just three wins in 2013 before losing a promotion/relegation playoff with the Lions. 

The new-look Kings don't have one standout player amongst their ranks and look like whipping boys on paper. Their most experienced performer is captain Steven Sykes who has close to 100 Super Rugby appearances under his belt. Sykes and head coach Deon Davids will be hoping that their side can snatch a few victories which will help with their progression for the next few seasons. 

Aidon Davis will be hoping for big season in Port Elizabeth after impressing for the South African under-20s (image via: zimbio)
Aidon Davis will be hoping for big season in Port Elizabeth after impressing for the South African under-20s (image via: zimbio)

After running into serious trouble, the Kings recruitment drive struggled to get off the ground, which is proven by the threadbare squad they have strung together. The most exciting prospects who will be running out at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium this season are young back-row forwards Junior Pokomela and Aidon Davis (pictured during the Junior World Championship). Earmarked as future Springboks, the pair should both feature heavily in the Kings lineup this campaign and will be given plenty of opportunities to impress over the season, which looks destined to be a struggle for all involved. 

Lions

Following on from the best season in the Lions nine-year history, there is a different kind of pressure on the Johannesburg-based province. The Lions nine-win season, was the best the team had enjoyed since taking over from the Cats as Jo'burg's team in 2006. The provincial side then claimed victory in last year's Currie Cup, in what was a golden year for the Lions franchise. 

The majority of last year's squad has been kept intact as the Lions look to grow from within and to continue their ascendancy. There is further stability in the leadership group, with head coach Johan Ackerman and inspirational captain Warren Whiteley leading the charge once more. Whiteley is one of only five Springboks in the Lions squad, with none of them currently involved in the international setup. 

Currie Cup skipper Jaco Kriel will join Whiteley in a strong Lions pack which includes 25-year-old lock forward Franco Mostert and flanker Warwick Tecklenburg who had an impressive season last time out. 

Diminuative scrum-half Faf de Klerk is crucial to the Lions continued improvements (image via: zimbio)
Diminuative scrum-half Faf de Klerk is crucial to the Lions continued improvements (image via: zimbio)

The major strength of the Lions backline comes in form of their half-backs, Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies, with the latter having had a taste of international rugby four years ago. The Lions also possess potentially the most underrated centre partnership in the competition, in the form of Lionel Mapoe and Harold Vorster, who scored seven tries between them last time out. 

The only major loss at the end of last season was Schalk van der Merwe, with the prop joining the South African player exodus to Montpellier under former-Springbok coach Jake White

If this side can continue to grow under Whiteley and Ackerman then the sky is in the limit in this conference. Registering their first playoff place since 2001 (as the Cats) would seem to be the next step needed to consolidate themselves amongst the elite. 

Sharks

Despite losing eight former Springboks from their 2015 squad, the Sharks should be the team to beat in their new conference. A plethora of their best players joined big spenders in France's Top 14 division, including Springboks, Willem Alberts (Stade Francais) and Bismarck & Jannie du Plessis (Montpellier). 

The departure though, which will hurt head coach Gary Gold the most, is that of Pieter-Steph du Toit who has moved to the rival Stormers. Du Toit would have been a player to build around for the Sharks at the age of 23, but Gold will now have to do without his services. 

Where the Sharks have outperformed their fellow South African provinces, is their ability to replace outgoing players with experienced heads. Willie le Roux and Conie Oosthuizen will be instant hits after joining from the Cheetahs, whilst Jacques Potgeiter returns to his homeland after two highly successful seasons with the Waratahs

New signing Willie le Roux will hope to hit the ground running for the Sharks (image via: planetrugby)
New signing Willie le Roux will hope to hit the ground running for the Sharks (image via: planetrugby)

Prop Thomas du Toit is capable of becoming the best in the world at his position, and should enjoy his first full Super Rugby season opposite Tendai Mtawarira in the front row. Namibian pair Renaldo Bothma and Johan Deysel will hope to get the opportunity to continue the barnstorming form they showed at the World Cup, whilst Chiliboy Ralepelle is looking to resurrect his career in Durban following a drugs ban which has kept him out of rugby for two years. 

On the eve of the tournament, the Sharks were handed a major setback, with the news that captain Pat Lambie will miss a large chunk of the season after suffering a dislocated shoulder. Marcel Coetzee is expected to take over as skipper, in what will be his final season with the Sharks ahead of a summer move to Ulster which came as another hammer-blow for the province. 

Overall, the Sharks will head into the season as the favourites to win the Africa 2 conference, but they are expected to be under huge pressure from the Jaguares and Lions. Players with the experience of JP Pietersen and Michael Claassens will be key to them sustaining a push for the playoffs with the side looking to put a poor 2015 season behind them.