Usual suspects primed for Super Rugby challenge
Stephen Nell
January 17, 2011
The Sharks' John Smit offers some instruction, Sharks v Stormers, Super 14, Kings Park, Durban, South Africa, May 8, 2010
John Smit is set to be reduced to a bit-part role with the Sharks this season © Getty Images

Expect a three-pronged onslaught from South Africa in this year's Super Rugby series.

Last year's finalists - the Bulls and the Stormers - are sure to be up among the contenders again. However, the resurgence the Sharks enjoyed towards the end of last year's Super 14 continued into the Currie Cup, culminating in wins over the Blue Bulls in the semi-final and Western Province in the final. This suggests that John Plumtree's side may well have the beating of the Bulls and Stormers.

One of the big early-season questions about the Sharks is where Springbok captain John Smit will feature in the side. Bismarck du Plessis underlined his credentials as a world class hooker on South Africa's end-of-season tour and will surely be favoured to wear the Sharks' No.2 jersey.

Smit had some good games at loose-head prop last year, but again is competing with Springbok prop Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira. The Beast is currently at the centre of a contractual wrangle between the Sharks and Lions, though indications appear to be that he will stay in Durban. The Sharks also have Jannie du Plessis at tight-head prop, suggesting that Smit's best place in a full-strength side will be as a substitute.

Patrick Lambie underlined his fly-half credentials with a superb display in the Currie Cup final against WP, though Super Rugby will offer the challenge of tough opponents every week. I would nevertheless expect the Sharks to be there and thereabouts come the business end of the competition.

The Bulls are starting the year with uncertainty following the positive dope tests returned by Springbok players Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralepelle. Basson was a big signing from Griquas and broke the Currie Cup try-scoring record last year, while Ralepelle is their back-up hooker.

"The Sharks also have Jannie du Plessis at tight-head prop, suggesting that Smit's best place in a full-strength side will be as a substitute."

However, don't expect them to capitulate in the face of a little bit of adversity. Fourie du Preez will be back to help spearhead what will be a final opportunity for silverware in Super Rugby for a golden generation of Bulls players. This includes stars like Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, who are also in their final years in South Africa. Matfield is expected to retire after the World Cup in New Zealand, Botha is set to move to France and Du Preez to Japan.

With the core of the side including gifted players such as Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies and Gurthrö Steenkamp, it will be foolish to expect the Bulls to be anywhere else than among the contenders.

The Stormers have added two world class players to their ranks in Jean de Villiers and CJ van der Linde. Their prop resources were a little thin last year and that makes the versatile Van der Linde an ideal option. De Villiers's arrival will leave coach Allister Coetzee with the tough task of picking a midfield from the former Munster man, Jaque Fourie and Juan de Jongh.

Peter Grant is due back from Japan in the first week of February and having their fly-half fit can have a defining effect on the campaign as the Stormers do not have experienced back-up.

As for the Lions, they have a good draw, but performance is unlikely to match the hype. There is suddenly big money in the union and they have made some good signings in Cheetahs wing Lionel Mapoe and Bulls hooker Bandise Maku. The Lions' biggest asset may well be the brain of former All Black coach John Mitchell, but the squad simply is not strong enough to mount a sustained challenge.

The Cheetahs are going to struggle. At the time of writing they were still in the process of finalising a sponsor, which offers a glimpse into the kind of hardship they can face. Super Rugby, more than ever, will be about depth. The Cheetahs don't have it.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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