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Super Rugby: Africa 2 Conference Preview
Our rugby scribe previews the Africa 2 Super Rugby Conference which contains the Lions, Sharks, Kings and Jaguares.
The 2017 Super Rugby season is just around the corner and our rugby scribes have been hard at work preparing their in-depth previews. Below we'll take a look at the teams playing out of Africa Conference 2.
To Win Outright: 7/1
2016 Finish: Runners-up
The Lions won the hearts of many last season with their enterprising, entertaining style-of-play coupled with their hearts-on-their-sleeves approach making for fantastic viewing. Their dismantling of the Highlanders and Crusaders in last year's playoffs was phenomenal, and they should again be considered as title contenders in 2017. Johan Ackermann's happy-brigade will this year take on the Australian teams in the round-robin stages, something they will feel positive about, and should run away with the Africa 2 Conference.
The Lions will be feeling uber-confident this year, and Warren Whiteley will accept nothing less from his team than going one step further this season. With players like Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Jaco Kriel and Franco Mostert, Johannesburg should be roaring again in 2017.
Biggest Strength: Confidence
The Lions will realise that they have what it takes to go up against the very best the competition has this year, and this confidence should see them go far. After putting some big sides to the sword in 2016, Ackermann's pride will be looking for a repeat this campaign.
Player To Watch: Malcolm Marx
The international retirement of Springbok skipper Adriaan Strauss has paved the way for Marx to make his mark this year. Still only 23-years-old and having made his Test debut last year, the fiery hooker will be going all out in 2017 in an attempt to emulate the highs of last year.
Verdict: Champions 2017
Why shouldn't this side go on to win it this year? They have what it takes, and their heartbreaking experience of last season will only do them good this time round. Let's hope they can bring the title back to South Africa in 2017!
To Win Outright: 16/1
2016 Finish: Quarterfinal Exit
Durban's finest again go into a new season with the promise of playing "bums on seats rugby". Robert du Preez will have it all to do to ensure that this transpires, however, as the last few seasons have been very disappointing for the Sharks, coloured with injuries, ill-discipline and boring game plans. Their 41-0 quarterfinal loss to the Hurricanes was described by veteran prop Beast Mtwarira as "embarrassing and disgraceful", and the 'Men In Black' will look to turn it around this season by potentially going a step further. Playing the weaker Aussie teams this year is a big positive for the side (they uncharacteristically begin their campaign' Down Under' his season), while they will back themselves to at least finish in the top two of their Africa 2 Conference and book their place in the knockouts.
Patrick Lambie is again retained as captain, and the Sharks fans will be hoping that he and halfback partner Cobus Reinach remain injury-free this year to make a big impact. Newly-capped Springbok loosie Jean-Luc du Preez will be looking to stamp his authority on this campaign, while the likes of veterans Keegan Daniel and Lwazi Mvovo will add calmness and composer to the side.
Biggest Strength: Springbok Halfback Pairing
Lambie and Reinach have really clicked as a pairing whenever they've played together, and they could be the catalysts for their side in 2017 should they remain injury-free. Both will be keen to turn out for the Springboks again this year, and some strong Super Rugby showings should do the trick.
Player To Watch: Coenie Oosthuizen
A Springbok regular under Heyneke Meyer, Oosthuizen is yet to turn out in the green-and-gold in the Coetzee era. Injuries, as well as a loss of form, have limited him but he will be looking to make 2017 his own and remind everyone that he's still around.
Verdict: Quarterfinal Exit
Expect another mediocre year from this Sharks team. They haven't got the coaching or playing personnel to seriously bother any of the bigger sides in the competition, and shouldn't go further than they did last year.
To Win Outright: 400/1
2016 Finish: 17th
The Kings will again struggle in 2017. With so many off-field disruptions occurring last year, it is a wonder they didn't finish last (that title belongs to the Sunwolves). The Kings lack quality all-round, as their case for inclusion in the competition was severely dented last year, as the Eastern Cape side lost 13 of their 15 games. Coach Deon Davids hasn't a hope-in-hell of achieving proper results at the helm, at least not anytime in the near-future.
They will do well to improve on the two victories they achieved last season, but the fact that they will face the likes of the Western Force this year (and the Sunwolves again), means there is hope. Even so, they should still look like more of a club than professional rugby side in 2017. One has to feel for them.
Biggest Strength: Underdog Tag
The Kings will look to exploit the potential arrogance of opponents by possibly providing an upset. Even so, their "underdog" tag didn't really seem to work for them last year, did it?
Player To Watch: CJ Velleman
In a squad of no-name-brands, Velleman stood out last year. After continually punching above his weight, the 21-year-old openside flank seems to have a bright future ahead of him, and the Kings will do well to retain his services for another season, should he again perform well.
Verdict: Conference-Phase Exit
The Kings will do well not to finish bottom this year, but there's no denying that they will finish in the bottom two of the Africa 2 Conference.
To Win Outright: 33/1
2016 Position: 13th
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the 2016 tournament was the Jaguares. Tipped to challenge for a playoff birth, Agustin Creevy's men ended up with just four wins, placing them 13th on the overall table. His side would have learned from last year, however, and thus should bode them well in 2017.
If Raul Perez can control his side's ill-discipline this season (red and yellow cards became the norm for the Argentines last year), they should be in with a shout of the playoffs. Better rugby should come from this more-settled side this season, as they now know what to expect from the competition.
Biggest Strength: Backline Firepower
The Jaguares have a host of quality attacking players in their backs, and their solid forward pack should lay the platform for them to showcase their true talents this year.
Player To Watch: Joaquin Tuculet
The talented fullback has been a mainstay in the Argentine national team for many a season now, however, his performances last year were anything but. Expect a big season from this classy player in 2017.
Verdict: Conference-Phase Exit
Los Pumas should again find themselves finishing behind the Lions and Sharks in their Conference this season. They should improve (and maybe slay a few Aussie sides along the way), but they aren't yet experienced enough to challenge the bigger SA teams.