Former All Blacks coach JOHN MITCHELL says the 2014 Varsity Cup and Super Rugby tournaments will be fascinating to watch.
A number of rugby topics would have been discussed around the braai during the southern hemisphere off-season, as fans looked ahead to 2014. I’m excited about this year and eager to see what unfolds.
What impact will the Varsity Cup’s dual-referees experiment have on the game and will the pink binding grips on the props’ jerseys result in a more stable scrum? Referees will also play a free-kick advantage if a player catches the ball without it bouncing first, no matter where he is on the field, which may create more space on attack.
In Super Rugby, all eyes will be on Victor Matfield, who has come out of retirement. The Bulls will be very inexperienced this year, having lost so many players to overseas clubs, but Matfield will help in this regard. I’ll also be watching Pierre Spies closely. Will he show the desire and hunger to get the Springbok No 8 jersey back from Duane Vermeulen?
It will be interesting to see Jake White’s influence on the Sharks, who many regard as South Africa’s best bet to win the competition, and whether this season will be the making of Pat Lambie. White has said Lambie will play 80 minutes of every game at flyhalf, which will give the 23-year-old a chance to settle in the position and make a statement.
The Stormers were only able to get one bonus point for scoring four tries in last year’s competition, so their attack will again come under scrutiny in 2014. Have they put plans in place to ensure they pose a greater threat in this department? I’ll also be keeping an eye on Schalk Burger. He has invaluable experience and enthusiasm, but will he be able to hold down a starting position?
The Lions are excited to be back in the competition, but to be competitive they need to stay relatively injury-free, field their most experienced team and build continuity. Having the depth of their squad tested early in the campaign will put them under huge pressure.
The Cheetahs also need to avoid injury if they are to achieve consistent success, as they did last year to reach the play-offs.
As far as New Zealand’s franchises go, I’ll be looking to see what impact Cory Jane has on the Hurricanes, and how much they will miss Conrad Smith, who is on a sabbatical.
Will Ma’a Nonu, who has returned to the Blues where he was not wanted a year ago, finally show hunger at Super Rugby level?
Hopefully Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has learned from their nightmare 2013 campaign and can get the best out of his group in 2014. He has some ageing players up front who may have lost the spring in their step, but does possess the brilliant Ben Smith out wide.
The Crusaders always deserve great respect but will be without Dan Carter, who is also on sabbatical. Can Kieran Read and Israel Dagg have an even greater influence? Robbie Deans wants to start coaching again, so could this be coach Todd Blackadder’s last season if the Crusaders don’t break their five-year title drought?
The Chiefs will be desperate for a three-peat, but they have lost some experienced players like former captain Craig Clarke.
In Australia, the Brumbies are a class outfit who are innovative in first-phase attack. Jake White has left but their processes remain, while David Pocock’s return will boost them.
The team that could surprise is Michael Cheika’s Waratahs. They were more ambitious in attack in 2013 and they may even have a more physical edge in 2014. Tahs fans will hope that Cheika strikes up a good relationship with Kurtley Beale and can get his career back on track.
The Reds need to widen their attack and ensure their hard-working, pressure-building, ball-in-hand approach reaps the reward.
The Force constantly change their squad and therefore never achieve any continuity. They have signed eight South Africans, which indicates the lack of depth in Australian rugby. The Rebels should also struggle again.
– This column first appeared in the March 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine