SARugbymag.co.za's panel of experts on who will win the SA Vodacom Super Rugby conference and the key players in each franchise.
Wayne Fyvie (former Sharks and Springbok flank)
'The Sharks have the best chance of winning the SA conference. They have new coaching staff [director of rugby Gary Gold and technical director Brendan Venter] and a balanced squad with great depth. The other SA franchises will also do better than last season. For some reason our teams tend to do well in a World Cup year. As for the key players, Victor Matfield's wealth of experience will benefit the Bulls, Willie le Roux poses a great threat when on form for the Cheetahs, Warren Whiteley will be desperate to play well for the Lions and get into the Bok World Cup squad, Bismarck du Plessis and Pat Lambie will want to secure starting positions for the Boks by impressing for the Sharks, and Duane Vermeulen will be key for the Stormers with his added responsibilities as captain.'
Corné Krige (former Stormers and Springbok flank)
'The Sharks will win the SA conference, with the Bulls and Stormers fighting for second place. The Sharks and the Stormers have settled, experienced squads. The Lions played with great confidence last year and should be a stronger team this year, while it will be interesting to see the style of rugby the Bulls play. The halfback pairing of Handré Pollard and Francois Hougaard will be key for the Bulls, while Heinrich Brüssow's experience will benefit a Cheetahs team that has lost a lot of players. If the Lions front row can dominate the scrums like they did in the Currie Cup, they'll do well, and the Sharks' all-Springbok front row will have a crucial role to play for them too. Eben Etzebeth will be lethal for the Stormers if on form.'
Robbie Kempson (former Sharks, Stormers and Springbok prop)
'Without a doubt the Sharks are the favourites to win the SA conference. They have great depth in all positions and Willem Alberts' return will be a significant boost. I'm looking forward to seeing how the Lions will progress having gone from strength to strength last year and with Warren Whiteley at the helm. The Cheetahs have lost a few players, but with the influential Heinrich Brüssow around I expect them to surprise a few teams, especially at home where they are always hard to beat. The Bulls youngsters have gained experience over the past year and with Victor Matfield captaining the team they should do better in 2015 than they did in 2014. And hopefully new captain Duane Vermeulen can get the best out of the Stormers.'
Adrian Jacobs (former Sharks and Springbok centre)
'I think the Stormers will be the SA conference winners. They have a balanced squad and played some good rugby in the latter stages of Super Rugby and throughout the Currie Cup. Jake White's departure could hurt the Sharks' chances of winning the conference and while the Bulls should be competitive, I can't see them winning it. The Lions have improved a lot, but the Cheetahs may falter. However, with the All Blacks being rested [for two rounds of the tournament at various times] South African teams' chances have improved. Pat Lambie will be the Sharks' key player and could give Heyneke Meyer a selection headache and I expect Pierrie Spies to do well upon his return from injury for the Bulls. It will be interesting to see if Nizaam Carr [Stormers], Oupa Mohoje [Cheetahs] and Jaco Kriel [Lions] can reproduced their form of last year.'
Gaffie du Toit (former Sharks, Stormers, Cheetahs and Springbok flyhalf)
'I'm tipping the Stormers to win the SA conference. [Director of rugby] Gert Smal has made a profound impact on them and they can now vary their style of rugby. The Sharks will need to gain early momentum in order to challenge for the title. The Bulls are dark horses – they struggled last year but will rise again. The Cheetahs shouldn't be underestimated as while they've lost some players they've brought in new blood and new ideas. That worked well for the Lions, who will be hoping to be even more competitive this year. The Springboks will be the key players for all five franchises. The packs must dominate and the defensive systems effective. The teams that adapt more quickly to their opponents will do well.'
Photo: Shaun Roy/Gallo Images