Super Rugby: Africa Conference 1 Preview

Our rugby scribe previews the Super Rugby Africa Conference 1.

Aside from South Africa's one shining light, the Lions, 2016 was unquestionably South African rugby's worst year in the professional era, and perhaps of all time. The 2016 Super Rugby tournament saw three Saffa teams make the quarter-finals, but after the Sharks and Stormers were both unceremoniously dumped out of the competition's quarterfinals (the Sharks losing 41-0 in Wellington, and the Stormers going down 60-21 at home to the Chiefs), it was up to the "Pride of Jozi" to fly the SA flag all the way to the final.

Africa Conference 1 contains the Stormers, the Bulls and the Currie Cup-winning Cheetahs. There's also a bit of international flair thrown into the mix with the Sunwolves set for a second year alongside the aforementioned teams.

To Win Outright: 33/1
2016 Finish: 9th

The Bulls are still going through a transition period after the departure of stalwart coach Frans Ludeke, and if 2016's Currie Cup campaign is anything to go by; expect the Pretoria-based outfit to play a much more attacking and expansive game this season.

Coach Nollis Marais challenged his side to go against every fibre of the Bulls being in last season's Currie Cup, and urged them to attack and run the ball - as opposed to their century-old adage of "skop en jag". This style of play led his men all the way to the final, and there's no doubt they'll continue to experiment with it during this campaign.

With Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard returning, as well as Jan Serfontein and Warrick Gelant, having overcome their injury troubles, the Bulls should be all set for their more expansive approach this season. Meanwhile, hardmen such as Adriaan Strauss and Lood de Jager will ensure that none of the Bulls' renowned physicality goes amiss.

Biggest Strength: Flying Under The Radar
Nobody expects the Bulls to perform this year and with betting odds of 33/1, the suggestion that they will be taking home this season's title seems laughable. This however will take a whole lot of pressure off of Nollis Marais and his team, which may present a perfect opportunity to experiment with their new-found attacking philosophy. This may catch a few teams off guard, and perhaps enable the Bulls to steal an unlikely victory or two this campaign.

Player To Watch: Warrick Gelant
With Willie le Roux out of form and seemingly out of favor with Springbok coach Allister Coetzee, the emergence last year of former SA U20 player Gelant was a revelation. Despite missing most of 2016 through injury, the talented fullback will want to make a big impact for the Bulls this year, and perhaps stake a claim to the Boks' no. 15 jersey for the incoming French series...

Verdict: Conference-Phase Exit
With the Bulls set to tackle New Zealand's very best in the round-robin stages this year, progression to the knockouts seems unlikely. They may claim a few unexpected victories against certain South African sides at Fortress Loftus, but currently this Bulls side still needs more time to adjust to their proposed game plan.

To Win Outright: 100/1
2016 Finish: 14th
Although the Cheetahs only managed to win 4 of their 15 games in last year's Super Rugby tournament, the Bloemfontein-based-bunch restored some pride later on in the year by winning their first Currie Cup title since 2007. In the latter campaign, the Cheetahs played with flash, style and swagger, finishing unbeaten and finally seeming to adjust to coach Franco Smith's style-of-play.

 The Cheetahs attempted to run the rugby ball from all over the park, throwing some spectacular offloads and scoring some breathtaking tries in the process - not unlike the 2016 Lions Super Rugby side. Smith will know that Super Rugby is a whole other level entirely however. and a huge step-up is needed if his side are to finish higher than 14th this year.

The Cheetahs will be confident of improvement this year, and with a few Springbok tourists in their side - including Sergeal Peterson, Uzair Cassim and captain Francois Venter - could create some upsets. Their unbeaten Currie Cup campaign will ignite hope within this Cheetahs camp, and their attack-minded play should see them win over plenty of fans.

Biggest Strength: Attacking Mindset
The Cheetahs are capable of some audacious attacking play on their day, and Franco Smith will be drilling into his players that they are here to entertain. Throwing unlikely offloads and running into space is what this side is all about, as they look to make their mark on this competition.

Player To Watch: Sergeal Peterson
2016's Currie Cup try-scorer will look to build on the nine five-pointers he scored in the Cheetahs last Super Rugby campaign, and guide them to a solid finish this time round. The 22-year-old's spectacular showings earned him a spot in the Springbok touring party at the end of last year, and he will look to again catch Allister Coetzee's eye this year.

Verdict: Conference-Phase Exit
The Cheetahs will be hard-pressed to challenge the likes of the Bulls and Stormers atop their Conference, while the fact that they play Kiwi teams this year will work against them. They may surprise a few sides, but should ultimately finish fourth in their Africa 1 Conference.

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To  Win Outright: 18/1
2016 Finish: Quarterfinal Exit
Amidst the turmoil involving the alleged WPRU bankruptcy scandal, this Stormers side is up against it again this season. Coach Robbie Fleck offered nothing new in his first term as head coach last year, as he saw his side again blow a home playoff, this time to the Chiefs. The fact that his contract was extended is baffling, but only serves to further support the argument that the Stormers are the Wales of Super Rugby, who deem mediocrity enough on the basis that they "ran them [their opposition] close". Their 60-21 hammering by the Chiefs in their quarterfinal suggests anything but, and there is no indication that they will be any better in 2017.

Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit will again provide their side with solid lineout ball and go-forward, but they may see themselves fighting another losing cause this year. Fly-half Robert du Preez is capable of some special moments, but there is no helping the fact that the cohesion in this Stormers side just isn't there.

Player To Watch: Seabelo Senatla
The reigning World Sevens Player of the Year is truly a remarkable talent, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to his first full season of Super Rugby. The young man has a bright future ahead of him in the fifteen-man code, and you can bet that Allister Coetzee will be keeping tags on the flyer.

Biggest Strength: Second-Row Genius
Etzebeth and du Toit both ranked in the top two for lineouts stolen at the conclusion of last year's edition, and their marauding play will serve as a massive catalyst for the Cape outfit this year. Both have class written all over them.

Verdict: Conference-Phase Exit
This Stormers side will again offer nothing new. The fact that they play Kiwi sides means that they won't scrape into the playoffs this time round, and that their short-comings should again be exposed in 2017.

To Win Outright: 500/1
2016 Finish: 18th
Even after Japan's miraculous results at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, they were always going to struggle in their first Super Rugby season, and struggle they did. Finishing stone-last (with a solitary win to their name), the pride of Japan battled to impose themselves, especially against the bigger franchises, and their inexperience and lack-of-depth was exposed time and again.

2017 will again put the Sunwolves to the test, and it will be interesting to see how far along they've come, and how full the Chichibunomiya Stadium will be at their home games. Japan pushed Wales close in November last year (eventually going down 33-30) which should give this side encouragement, but they should once again be scrapping with the Kings to see who finishes last this year.

Biggest Strength: Japanese Passion
The Sunwolves home games last year were always capacity-full, and their fans were always willing to scream for their team. This passion could propel the Japanese side to a possible home win or two, this season.

Player To Watch: Shota Horie
Japan international hooker Horie is the captain of the Sunwolves vessel, and his performances last year were nothing short of inspirational. Despite their abysmal record, he continually put his body on the line for his side, who will be expecting more of the same in 2017.

Verdict: Conference-Phase Exit
The Sunwolves will battle it out with the Kings to see who finishes rock bottom of the combined African Conference. Although they should have improved slightly this year, they should equal last year and finish in last position.

Written by Shaun Goosen for!

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