Super Rugby South African Conference Preview

Rugby player dives over the line to score a try.

The shorter and concise Super Rugby format will raise the bar at this year's tournament.

We break down each team, give you the ins and outs, and predict where each team will finish in the South African Conference.

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To Win Tournament Outright
Lions 6/1
Stormers 22/1
Sharks 25/1
Bulls 35/1
Jaguares 50/1


To Win Conference
Lions 13/20
Stormers 15/4
Sharks 9/2
Bulls 15/1
Jaguares 33/1

Lions

The 2016 and 2017 finalists will hope to go one better than they have in the two previous editions. After securing a home final against the Crusaders, the Lions failed to finish off what would have been an emphatic send-off for former coach Johann Ackermann as they went down 17-25 in a match that most think could've been won if Jaco Peyper wasn’t forced to send off flanker Kwagga Smith.

The Lions will want to emulate last season's performance that saw them finish first on the overall standings, with the second highest tries scored and second least amount of points conceded in the tournament. And with a squad that still contains its nucleus - the Lions are the SA conference favourites for good reason.

The good news for the Joburgers is the Lions have five fixtures in SA before heading off to Buenos Aires to face the Jaguares. They then return home for two fixtures against the 'Saders and the Stormers.  Their first bye will come in handy just before they make their way to Australasia to tackle two New Zealand and two Australian teams.

In terms of personnel changes, Faf de Klerk left for the Sale Sharks at the close of the last Super Rugby season while hooker Akker van der Merwe has moved to the Sharks. Despite losing these two solid players, the Lions still have a bulk of their Springboks, including 2017 SA Rugby Player of the Year, Malcolm Marx.

Player to Watch

Malcolm Marx
Marx who scooped three SA rugby Awards for 2017 is expected to have a big season - following his recent impressive performances at number two and he'll want to continue that momentum. His strength at the ruck time will be a cause for concern for teams he'll cross paths with.

Verdict: Lions - 2nd place conference finish
With another gruelling year awaiting the Joburgers and with the exit of Johann Ackermann, the Lions will have to work hard to top last season's performance. My money is on them finishing second in the Africa Conference. 

Sharks

With a narrow loss to the Lions in last season’s quarterfinals - the Durbanites are itching to rewrite their fate this year. After being thrown into the deep end in 2017, by starting the tournament on tour, the Durbanites showed their mettle against the Australian teams, only losing to the Rebels while beating the Brumbies, Waratahs, and the Reds.

The team boasted a solid defence as they conceded the second least amount of points of the African Conference sides which was 323. They carried this defensive mantra into the Currie Cup campaign, with their discipline seeing them to the Currie Cup final.

Robert du Preez Junior has hopped over to his homeland to be with his brothers and dad at the Durban franchise. Former SA Schools lock Gideon Koegelenberg, returns from Zebre, and high-profile wing Makazole Mampimpi are amongst nine players that have entered the fray.

The Sharks have an early bye week right after their first fixture before hosting the Waratahs and Sunwolves at the 'Shark Tank'. Their biggest test this year will be their Australasia tour where they’ll finally have a run against New Zealand teams in the form of the Blues and Hurricanes. Two wins from their tour could set them up nicely for a strong Conference finish.

Players to Watch

Robert du Preez Junior

The flyhalf is set for a big year with the Sharks. The eldest of the Du Preez boys has an accurate right boot, is solid on defence, and the right playmaking abilities to lead the Sharks backline this season.

Makazole Mampimpi
Hands down the Sharks best signing of the season. It will be interesting to see what Mampimpi can offer in a more adept team such as the Sharks. He should rack up the tries and possibly lead the try scorers log should the Sharks go all the way.

Verdict: Sharks to qualify for the playoff spot.
The Sharks, should they stay injury free, have the right depth to finish at the top of their conference. Coach Robert du Preez has proven his defence structures are solid and with a new set of players, the Durbanites have the right ingredients to top the group.

Blue Bulls

The Blue Bulls had one of their worst if not their worst run in Super Rugby history, losing 11 from 15 matches, and only finished above the minnow Sunwolves in the Combined African Conference. The Bulls responded by ejecting Nollis Marais and replaced him with the well respected Kiwi, John Mitchell.

The Blue Bulls Company implemented a turnaround strategy in August 2017 that placed Mitchell at the forefront -  Mitchell's herculean task of reviving the Pretoria rugby fraternities former glory is now in full swing after last season's Currie Cup campaign.

The Bulls look solid in the forward pack with Pierre Schoeman, Trevor Nyakane, RG Snyman, and Lood de Jager sure to provide a solid platform at the set-piece. At the back, they have game-breakers such as Warrick Gelant, Handre Pollard, and potentially Jesse Kriel. With the loss of Jan Serfontein, the Bulls will not be as strong as a unit in the backline and I feel that’s where they will fall short this year. Although Gelant can score tries from nothing – he won't do it alone game in and game out, especially in Australasia.

The Bulls have a tough opening few fixtures – they start with a bye week, followed by games against the Hurricanes and Lions at Loftus. They then go on tour to face the Reds, Chiefs, and Crusaders, in a fixture list that almost seems unfair. Those opening five results could set the morale for the rest of their Super Rugby season. It won’t be easy.

Player to watch

Warrick Gelant
The speedster earned his Springbok call-up at last year's End of the Year tour where he made two appearances and scored a try. The utility back capped off the Currie Cup as the leading try scorer with 10 crosses over the whitewash. The youngster will want to make a bigger mark at this year’s Super Rugby comp.

Verdict: Bulls to finish 3rd in the Conference 
The Bulls are a still in the foundation phase of their turnaround strategy and need more time to become a rugby powerhouse again. And with mammoth opening fixtures, they might only just finish above the Jaguares. 

Stormers

The Stormers crashed out in the quarter-finals of last year's tournament due to a lack of discipline that allowed All Black Damian McKenzie to kick four penalties in a tight 17-11 win for the Chiefs at Newlands. The result saw the men from Cape Town go down to the men from Waikato at the quarter-final stage for the second year running.

The Capetonians attacking style of play garnered them 64 tries - the fourth highest in the tournament - in 2017. While they were hot with ball-in-hand, it was the Stormers' defensive displays that cost them as they shipped a staggering 61 tries, with the bulk coming from their hidings on tour in New Zealand where the Crusaders, Highlanders, and Hurricanes outclassed them.

The lessons from those defeats have forced Paul Feeney and Paul Treu to up the ante in improving the holistic and natural skill of their players, in particular, the backline, with the end goal being a system where players work harder on their skills in order to surpass the demigod status of the New Zealand franchises.

The Stormers have a tough tour to Australasia after their opening match against the Jaguares, where they will face the Waratahs, Crusaders, and Highlanders. They've got a grueling eight matches before their first bye week.

The Capetonians have lost a treasured asset in Robert du Preez Jnr who spent three seasons in the Western Cape. Also, Huw Jones, Kurt Coleman, Cheslin Kolbe, and Juan de Jongh are many others to exit. Steven Kitschoff returns to the Cape and they've signed Raymond Rhule and Sergeal Petersen.

The Stormers do have something of a crisis at fly-half this season with Du Preez, Coleman and Brandon Thompson having moved onto pastures new. As such, a lot of responsibility will fall on the young shoulders of Damien Willimse. His burden will be somewhat eased when the mercurial Jean-Luc Du Plessis returns from injury.

Player to Watch

Siya Kolisi
The Stormers' captain will look to carry his South African Test match form into the Super Rugby season. The flanker's agility and strength are two of his strongest attributes on attack. The Stormers will need him to lead from the front ahead of a tough Super Rugby tournament.

Verdict: Stormers to finish 4th in the Conference
With the loss of several players and the addition of only a few, also with the restructuring of coaching roles within the Stormers, the players might struggle to adapt fast enough.

Jaguares

The tenth place overall finishers managed seven wins last season, finishing above the Kings, Cheetahs, Sunwolves, and Bulls in the Combined African Conference. They raised a few eyebrows when they won three in a row in Buenos Aires, beating the Lions, Cheetahs, and Reds respectively. But after their bye-week, the Argentines lost four on the trot in South Africa which all but ended their hopes of qualifying for the knock-out phase of the 2017 tournament.

They managed to stop the rot when they headed back home and registered a win over the Sunwolves. That victory seemed to galvanise them somewhat as they thumped the Waratahs and marginally beat the Rebels to end their second Super Rugby campaign on a high note, jolting up three places from their overall finish in 2016.

This year, former Argentine international, Mario Ledesma, will take over the reins from Raul Perez who coached the team for both their 2016 and 2017 Super Rugby seasons.

Ledesma will leave Michael Chieka and the Australian Rugby Union to pursue coaching in his native homeland. The former scrum coach for the Wallabies made 84 appearances for Argentina and participated in four World Cups. Ledesma is determined to create a unique playing style for the Argentines that incorporates their already existing flair and skill set.

The Jaguares have kept the bulk of their squad and have included scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli who had a short stint with the Brumbies. With a variety of Argentinian Internationals and World Cup experienced players, the Jaguares are looking a more fiery side. Should they sort out their on-field discipline issues they could prove to be a real threat.

Player to Watch

Emiliano Boffelli
The 2017 World Rugby Breakthrough player of the year nominee enjoyed a great Super Rugby season with the Jaguares and the 23-year-old is tipped to continue from where he left off.

Verdict: Jaguares to finish 5th in the ConferenceThe Jaguares, although have a good team to work with and the new addition of coach, Mario Ledesma, will serve them well, but it will be tough to top this conference with a more concise tournament.



Writtern by Lungelo Mdladla for Hollywoodbets

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