Super Rugby: Africa Conference 1 Preview

Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!


With little over a month left until the much-anticipated Super Rugby season kicks off, teams around the Southern Hemisphere will be putting the finishing touches on their preseason preparations. While for some the offseason has proceeded smoothly, for others, it’s been a frantic race against time to be ready for D-day, which will be the last weekend in February.
Below we’ll take at the first of the two African conferences.

Bulls
To Win Outright: 20/1
2015 Finish: Group Stage
Click here for the Bulls fixtures list 

While their Springboks were away at the World Cup, a bit of a revolution occurred back in Pretoria. The key figure behind the metamorphosis that has seen the Bulls approach change from “skop en moer” to “hardloop rugby” has been Nollis Marais. The former University of Pretoria head coach’s attacking brand of rugby may not have been rewarded with a 2015 Currie Cup title but it has increased the Bulls Super Rugby chances tenfold.

The reason for this, a simple one, you cannot win this tournament playing an outdated ten man brand of rugby anymore. And while credit must go to them for becoming only the second ever South African team to win the tournament, back in 2007, the game plan they implemented that year just doesn’t cut the mustard at this level nowadays.

While Marais must get the majority of the plaudits for the Bulls change in tact, you simply can’t ignore his Currie Cup stars willingness to adapt their game to the coach’s requirements. Bulls veterans who were brought up on a conservative game plan were playing some expansive stuff during last year's Currie Cup. (Francois Houughaard has just signed a short term contract with Worcester and won't feature for the Bulls this season).

So while the veterans were either at the World Cup or reinventing themselves during the Currie Cup, there were some impressive young Bulls making a name for themselves in the world’s oldest domestic rugby competition. The likes of Marvin Orie and Dries Swanepoel started the Currie Cup campaign as relative unknown quantities, but by the end of the tournament they had become two of the first names penned in the Bulls match day 22.

Another two players who made a huge impact for the Bulls during said campaign were former Varsity Cup players Jamba Ulengo and Burger Odendaal. Ulengo has long been touted as a future Springbok but inconsistency and injury have prevented the former Shimilas representative from living up to the hype that surrounds him. Last year’s Currie Cup showed exactly what the big winger is capable of when free from injury. He ran in 11 tries and his combination play with fellow winger Travis Ismael and fullback Warrick Gelant was an absolute joy to watch. The trio’s ability to link up on the counter could prove to be key for the Bulls during their Super Rugby campaign.

So we’ve established they’ve got a young exciting backline but what about their forward pack? It actually has a nice blend of youth and experience to it. Springbok Adriaan Strauss will return to lead the side. Fellow seasoned campaigners Deon Greyling, Marcel van der Merve, Arno Botha, and Deon Stegmann  (Stegmann sustained an injury and looks unlikely to feature for the Bulls this campaign) will form the nucleus of the pack while exciting youngsters Andrew Beerwinkel and Dayan van der Westhuizen will add some depth to the squad.

Player To Watch: Jesse Kriel
The Maritzburg College old boy is one of the hottest prospects in the game at the moment. He had a superb 2015 that saw him become a regular starter for both the Bulls and Springboks. While he started last year off playing as a fullback for the Bulls, I think he’s found his best position at outside centre. His strength and awareness make him the ideal man to spearhead this exciting Bulls backline.

Verdict: Quarter-Finals
I honestly think there’s a years' more work to do before this Bulls side becomes a real title contender. They should be able to make it through to the quarter-finals as the third best African conference qualifier but I think they’ll end up losing their quarter-final to one of the more established Australian or New Zealand franchises.

Cheetahs
To Win Outright: 200/1
2015 Finish: Group stage
Click here for the Cheetahs' fixtures list

The Cheetahs will once again enter a Super Rugby campaign with little or no hope of winning the title. The reason for this is mainly down to their inability to keep a hold of their star players. This year has proved no different with stalwarts Willie Le Roux, Coenie Oosthuizen and Heinrich Brussouw all moving onto greener pastures. While Brussouw’s disillusionment with the Springbok selection committee seems to have been the catalyst for his departure to Japan, his two former colleagues have decided to stay in the republic and have made the long trip down the N3 to Sharks country.

While many Cheetahs fans will view the loss of Le Roux as the biggest blow to their campaign, I am of a different opinion. There is no doubting Willie's quality, but over the last year or he seems to have lost a bit of the attacking flair that caught the rugby world's eye when he burst onto the scene. The Cheetahs also have a capable replacement for him in the form of exciting youngster Clayton Bloometjies. The diminutive fullback is coming off the back of an impressive Currie Cup campaign and he will want to show the Bulls what they missed out on when they released him a few years ago.

So let us now address the departures of Brussouw and Oosthuizen. Despite being plagued by injuries for the past five years, Heinrich was still the spiritual leader of this Cheetahs side. Every time the flanker returned from injury, the Cheetahs game would improve noticeably. His leadership skills, as well as, his grit and determination will be sorely missed by this Cheetahs outfit. His openside berth is likely to be taken Henco Venter, who’s going to have his work cut out for him if he is to replicate the feats of Brussouw.

Onto Coenie now. The big man had become somewhat of a cult figure up in Cheetahs territory. His powerful scrummaging, ability to play on either side of the scrum, hard hitting, and penchant for throwing a goose step made him one of the key men for the Cheetahs for nearly a decade. All four aforementioned aspects of his game will be severely missed by the Free State faithful. To make matters worse for the Cheetahs, Coenie's fellow front rowers, Dolph Botha, Caylib Oosthuizen and Ewald van der Walt have also left the franchise.

Player To Watch: Clayton Bloometjies 
Bloometjies had a fantastic Currie Cup campaign last year and was by far the most impressive backline player for the Cheetahs. His counter-attacking ability and educated left boot make him my player to watch for the Free State side.

Verdict: Group Stage
They simply don’t have a strong enough squad to compete at this level. I can, however, see them claiming a few upset wins on their way to a round robin stage exit.

Click here for a full tournament fixtures list

Stormers
To Win Outright: 12/1
2015 Finish: Play-offs
Click here for the Stormers' fixtures list

South Africa’s best-placed finishers in 2015 have endured a tumultuous past six months that has seen them struggle to sign a full-time coach. Having procured the services of Eddie Jones at the conclusion of last year’s Super Rugby tournament, the Stormers looked good for a tilt at the title this year. They would have their well-laid plans shattered however as Jones was poached by the English national team following the host nation's disastrous World Cup campaign. An approach for former Lions coach, John Mitchell was shut down by SARU and the Stormers have been forced to promote backline coach Robbie Fleck into the head coaching role.

While Fleck is yet to prove his salt as a head coach, he has inherited a competent and experienced squad who know how to perform at this level. Veterans Juan de Jongh, Nizaam Carr, Jano Vermaak and Eben Etzebeth's know-how will be vital to the Cape side during this campaign. They’re going to have to take a few of the younger players, who are yet to play a full season of Super Rugby, under their wings.

The youngsters in question, have the talented to really make a name for themselves even if this year’s tournament will be a huge step up for them. Centre Johhny Kotze and flanker Jean Kleyn really impressed during the Currie Cup. The former stepped his way through opposition defences with consummate ease while the latter was the most impressive looking thing to enter a ruck situation since Heinrich Brussouw burst onto the scene. The Stormers have also managed to sign Springbok lock Pieter-Steph du Toit from the Sharks. The former Boland youth representative is likely to form a formidable locking combination with fellow Springbok Eben Etzebeth. His physical presence may also help fill the void left by Duane Vermeulen's departure to Toulon.

The Stormers also have some players amongst their squad who are just about to hit their peak. The likes of Siya Kolisi, Scarra Ntubeni, Nizaam Carr and Cheslin Kolbe have all played some magnificent rugby over the last two to three years but I feel we will see the best of them this season.

Player To Watch: Robert du Preez
The son of former Springbok and namesake Robert du Preez had a cracking Currie Cup campaign for Western Province. He’s a physical flyhalf who can also do a job at inside centre. His ability to cover both positions could make him one of the key members of the 2016 Stormers squad. 

Verdict: Semi-Finals
Despite the drama surrounding their coaching staff, the Stormers are still the most likely South African side to make it through to the semi-finals. However, that is as deep in the tournament as they’re likely to go, though. 

Sunwolves
To Win Outright: 250/1
2015 Finish: Debut

The new kids on the block have endured a tempestuous preseason that has seen their proposed plans for a state of the art stadium fall woefully short of it’s billing. While they will be playing their home games at two different venues – the Chichibunomiya Rugby stadium in Tokyo and the Singapore National stadium in, you guessed it, Singapore – their flagship stadium in Tokyo is yet to have it’s video screen installed or have proper ticketing systems in place.

An unfinished stadium is the least of the Sunwolves' concerns, however. Their coaching staff consists of only one contracted man at present – former All Black, Mark Hammett. Hammett, who was only announced as the Sunwolves head coach last month, has had to call in a few favours in order to get a coaching team together.

While the coaching situation is an absolute shambles, the scenario surrounding the playing personnel may be even worse. The likes of Tusi Pisi, Riaan Viljoen and Ed Quirk will have to carry a squad that has little experience at this level of the game. While these three men will have to lead from the front, the Sunwolves will also need their Japanese internationals to step up to the mark. Hooker Shota Horie, prop Kaita Inagaki, lock Hitoshi Ono, scrumhalf Atsushi Hiwasa, and winger Akhito Yamada all turned out for the national team at last year’s World Cup. Their experience of playing against some of the South Africans in England last year will be vital for the Sunwolves. There’s not much more to write home about the rest of the Sunwolves squad.

In this modern age, it’s rather easy to find out about a player by simply typing his name into google. I tried this with a few of the remaining Sunwolves squad members and low and behold not a single stitch of information popped up on the search results. I think that in itself is all you need to know about the Sunwolves' squad and how they will fair in their inaugural Super Rugby campaign.

Player To Watch: Tusi Pisi
The veteran pivot is one of the few players in this Sunwolves squad to have played Super Rugby before. His wealth of experience and cool head is going to be vital for a side who are likely to endure an arduous debut campaign.

Verdict: Group Stage
Japanese rugby may be on a high but the feel good factor is certainly not floating around the Sunwolves camp. While it was always going to be a tough tournament for the Japanese franchise, their poor planning and lack of quality signings will make it all the more harder. I will honestly be surprised if the Sunwolves win a game.

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