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Don’t risk your house against the Bulls

Based on the improved depth in their squads and their performances last season, rugby fans in Cape Town and Durban will start the Super Rugby season confident that their respective teams, the Stormers and the Sharks, can join the list of winners of the southern hemisphere competition.

The Sharks finished the last Super Rugby season as the form team, being denied only by the slow start that forced them to fly around the world during the play-off phase. They have Frans Steyn back for the entire season this time, and what an addition he is to an already dangerous backline, and once Ryan Kankowski is properly conditioned after his sojourn in Japan, the Sharks will have an embarrassment of loose-forward riches.

The Stormers didn’t get their timing quite right last year in the sense that while they were arguably the form team of the entire competition having won the extended league phase, their effort left them running on empty by the time the semifinal against the Sharks arrived.

But their coach Allister Coetzee is big on learning from mistakes, and boosted by the arrival of a smattering of quality players from the Lions franchise, the Stormers now have enough depth to enable Coetzee to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to player management.

There is certainly enough versatility for the Stormers to front most eventualities if there are injuries, with Jaco Taute’s ability to play both fullback and centre adding to the selection options at the back. Michael Rhodes is equally at home at lock as he is at flank, as is Don Armand, one of several players to have graduated to the big time through Western Province’s Currie Cup final win last October.

Pat Cilliers’ arrival has also boosted the one area where there seems to be a perennial focus ahead of the start of another Stormers campaign, with the young but highly promising Frans Malherbe and the experienced Brok Harris now having to stand in line at the all-important position of tighthead prop. And don’t bet against Lions hooker Martin Bezuidenhout sticking with the Stormers even after Tiaan Liebenberg and Scarra Ntubeni have returned to full fitness to boost the depth at hooker.

Both sets of supporters should be tempering their expectations by remembering the words of Springbok team doctor Craig Roberts on the eve of the 2011 World Cup. Back then the extended Super Rugby format, with the double round of derbies, had only recently been announced, and Roberts painted a dark picture of what might happen this year.

“We have a break after the World Cup as there is no tour and so players will go into next year (2012) relatively fresh and well-conditioned, but in 2013 we will start feeling it and that is when the injuries will start coming,” said Roberts.

The Stormers and the Sharks have already suffered early-season injuries. But then every squad has experienced early season setbacks, and the Bulls, building up to their opener against the Stormers, have had to find replacements for Springboks Akona Ndungane, Jacques Potgieter and Dean Greyling. To win the competition you have to have a big squad, and that is why, if you are forced to wager your hard-earned money on Super Rugby, then the Stormers and Sharks are the best South African bets.

However I’m a little less eager to do that now than I was before Christmas, when the Sharks’ appearance in the Super Rugby final, the WP success in the Currie Cup and the Blue Bulls’ implosion in the domestic competition were still so fresh in the memory.

Stormers coach Allister Coetzee is right when he says that you cannot possibly write off a franchise that has won three successive Super Rugby trophies – no other local team has managed it once yet! I must admit to a hunch – call it a sixth sense if you like – that the Bulls might just have had their wake-up call.

The Bulls have looked impressive, well organised and, perhaps most importantly, damn hungry and motivated, in the bit of pre-season rugby that I have seen them play. More than that, there is something we may have forgotten about the Currie Cup – a good proportion of the Super Rugby coaching staff weren’t involved then.

Head coach Frans Ludeke spent the months of the Currie Cup plotting and scheming for Super Rugby, and he will have arrived at the pre-season buildup feeling fresh and with new ideas. And while this should not in any way be seen as a denigration of the previous Bulls forwards and attack coach Johan van Graan, for he presided over enough title successes to clearly know his oats and is now with the Springboks, I have a feeling that the arrival of Victor Matfield to assume that role is going to be a massive shot in the arm for the Bulls.

There’s something about Matfield that tells me he’s going to be one of those special coaches. Not every clever player makes a successful transition to a coaching role, but few regular readers will need to be reminded of my massive regard for Rassie Erasmus, and I have a hunch that Matfield is going to be the same.

Couple Matfield’s possible Midas touch in his field of expertise with the systems that Heyneke Meyer put in place and are surely still there and bearing fruit – the Bulls did win the national under-21 competition again last year and were in the under-19 final plus they appear to have snapped up the best juniors from elsewhere – and it seems the height of folly to bet too much against the Bulls.

Bet against them by all means, and the Sharks and Stormers should still attract the smart money, if there is such a thing in this most arduous and attritional of all rugby competitions. But don’t bet your house against the Bulls because you may well end up being homeless.

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