Rugby: Bulls no longer the main threat

Bulls captain Victor Matfield gestures to fans after his team beat the Crusaders in a Super 14...
Bulls captain Victor Matfield gestures to fans after his team beat the Crusaders in a Super 14 semifinal in Pretoria in May 2009. The veteran has now left the Bulls. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
The winds of change have blown through the teams on the other side of the Indian Ocean. Beginning our week of Super 15 build-up, rugby writer Steve Hepburn looks at the five South African sides.

There was always going to be a time when the chooks came home to roost for the Bulls.

Well, perhaps not chooks - more like calves or pups - but the time has arrived for the men from Pretoria.

The team, champion in 2009 and 2010, looks like a shadow of its former self this year.

For years, the Bulls had a core group of smart, talented and experienced players, who could muscle and steamroll their way to victory. They stayed in the top line-up and not much new blood came through.

But the veterans have all but disappeared this season, with the likes of Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez all leaving the franchise.

Morne Steyn is still there and Francois Hougaard is a real livewire but it is up front where the real test will come.

The Bulls are sure to have found some muscle to replace the departed players, but it is hard to see the Bulls being among the contenders. Too many good players have left all at once. Matfield has not gone far, as he is now on the coaching staff.

If not the Bulls, then the South African threat is more likely to come down on the coast from both the Sharks and the Stormers.

The Sharks have under-achieved of late. They made the playoffs last year but fell at the first hurdle.

Much will fall on the shoulders of young first five-eighth Pat Lambie.

He is seen as the chosen one in Durban and does have plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

Veteran backs Adi Jacobs and Stefan Terblanche have moved on and there is some young talent to draw on in the backline, although veteran Springbok centre Maruis Joubert returns from France to add experience.

Bismarck du Plessis will relish not having John Smit around any more, and the front row will be as solid as ever.

On the other side of the country the Stormers will again be hard to beat but have to do more on attack.

The side will miss big centre Jaque Fourie, who has headed to Japan, while flanker Francois Louw has also moved offshore. There has been talk of moving Bryan Habana to centre although in Juan de Jongh the side has a ready-made replacement for Fourie.

The key to the Stormers is their defence, especially at home in Cape Town. They are tough to get past and won a lot of games last year by just not letting the opponents get over their line. This year that defence must stay firm and tries must come in bigger numbers.

The Lions should come into the season with a bit of confidence after winning the Currie Cup last season.

But it is another step up for coach John Mitchell and his team. The side has few internationals but has nothing to lose.

In the past five years, the Lions have won 14 games, drawn two and lost 52 so the only way is up. Much depends on young first five-eighth Elton Jantjies.

The Cheetahs are aiming for more improvement. They went close in many games last year and if they could turn those losses into wins the playoffs beckon.

But travelling away from home is an issue, as is keeping their best players on the paddock.


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