With Super Rugby set to kick off in just over a month’s time, CRAIG LEWIS makes some predictions for the season ahead.
Lions to lead South African charge once again
The 2016 season was one to forget for South African rugby, but the one shining light was provided by the Lions as they progressed to the Super Rugby final in emphatic fashion.
Although the Lions will have a target on their back as they head into a new campaign, the Johannesburg-based side will represent South Africa’s best shot at a Super Rugby title this season.
Again, the Lions will head into the season with a strong and settled squad, with SA Rugby Coach of the Year Johan Ackermann sure to continue advocating an ambitious brand of rugby.
Key to the Lions’ chances of replicating their success of last season can also be found in the fact that they will also face all the Australian franchises this year, and should be well-placed to finish top of their conference.
If last year’s Super Rugby runners-up can add some additional defensive resolve to their game, there is every reason to believe that they can challenge for South Africa’s first Super Rugby trophy since 2010.
Handré Pollard to make up for lost time
Pollard was ruled out of the entire 2016 season due to injury, and his presence was sorely missed by both the Bulls and Boks.
He’s a player who will be desperately hungry to make a meaningful comeback after finally making a full recovery, which has recently seen him return to training.
The talented 22-year-old will once again wear the Bulls’ No 10 jersey, and another strong Super Rugby return will ensure that he establishes himself as the frontrunner to also fulfil that role for the Boks when the international season resumes.
After such a long time out of action due to injury, this Super Rugby season will be an important one for the multi-talented pivot as he looks to rediscover top form and make up for lost time.
Stormers, Bulls to face uphill battle
Most supporters are likely to lament the nature of another lopsided Super Rugby season that sees some teams meet the leading New Zealand sides, and others miss out on facing them altogether.
Last year, the Stormers enjoyed a dream draw and were able to comfortably finish top of the Africa 1 conference before revealingly being thrashed by the Chiefs in a one-sided quarter-final, while the Bulls missed out on the playoffs altogether despite not having to face New Zealand opposition.
This time around, the Stormers and Bulls will have to take on the top Kiwi teams, and with neither side having made any particularly awe-inspiring signings, it’s sure to compromise their chances of booking a playoff berth.
By contrast, the Sharks can look forward to a far more favourable draw by comparison to last year’s gruelling schedule, but will again have the Lions to contend with in the Africa 2 conference.
Kings will face further struggles
Around this time last year the Kings were in absolute turmoil as their financial strife left them scrambling to put together a squad capable of competing on the Super Rugby stage.
In the end, they fought a losing battle as they managed to win just the two solitary games, and suffered a host of other heavy defeats.
Although the Eastern Cape franchise has enjoyed a more settled build-up to this season, there’s nothing to suggest they have a squad capable of competing with the top teams.
There is some respite in the fact that the Kings will have a more favourable draw this season (which sees them avoid the New Zealand teams), but they are likely to once again battle it out with the Western Force for the wooden spoon.
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