JOHANNESBURG Feb 22 (Reuters) - Possible relegation from Super Rugby will be the strongest driving force for South Africa's five franchises in 2012, with the Lions and Cheetahs most in danger of extinction.
While the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks all have enough pedigree to make winning the tournament their priority, for the Lions and Cheetahs - who have just seven top-10 finishes between them in the 16 years of the SANZAR competition - it will be a desperate battle for survival.
The Eastern Cape-based Southern Kings have won promotion into Super Rugby next year in the South African Rugby UnioN (SARU) boardroom, meaning one of the current five franchises will have to make way for them.
The "big five" have called on SARU to prevent any of them being dropped by convincing SANZAR to make it a 16-team competition, but they are unlikely to win that battle with contracts signed with broadcasters and franchises through to the end of 2015.
The Johannesburg-based Lions managed a fairytale domestic Currie Cup triumph last year, but are currently in the midst of a financial crisis and a lack of top-class players could count against them in the more competitive and demanding southern hemisphere tournament.
Elton Jantjies, 21, emerged as a slick flyhalf who served a fluent backline well in last year's Currie Cup, but he and veterans Butch James (flyhalf) and CJ van der Linde (prop) are the only current Springboks in the Lions squad.
Lions coach John Mitchell is in a typically defiant mood, however.
"Our only concern is ourselves and our environment, not what other people are saying. We're just interested in our goals as a team, we're familiar with each other and that's something I believe we can bank on," the former All Blacks coach said on Wednesday.
The central Cheetahs franchise have a few more Springboks in their ranks but will go into the competition without the inspirational leadership of flanker Juan Smith, who is still battling an Achilles injury that also kept him out of last year's World Cup.
But in Heinrich Brussow, the Cheetahs have one of the most effective fetchers in world rugby, and coach Naka Drotske said the flank would be his team's new inspiration.
"Heinrich does make a huge difference to our team and I am really looking forward to seeing him in action on the field. With his style of play, he encourages the other players to be aggressive and he will make a difference to any team," Drotske said.
The Cheetahs play the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday and, having lost their first four matches last year, Drotske said it was imperative they started well in 2012.
"In the past that was a major drawback for us. We lose a few games early in the season, which we should win, and last year there were several defeats. There is no doubt we want to get off to a better start," he said.
The Western Cape-based Stormers, winners of the South African Conference last year before being knocked out by the Crusaders in the semi-finals, will have to make do without the brilliance of Jaque Fourie at outside centre but the backline is still potent.
The Bulls, champions in 2007, 2009 and 2010, have undergone a changing of the guard with top names such as Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw no longer involved.
That has created room for potential futures heroes such as Francois Hougaard, Juandre Kruger, Flip van der Merwe and Dewald Potgieter to take centre stage.
Commentators are also favouring the Sharks to make an impact with inconsistency, especially at home, to blame for their failure to make the semi-finals since 2008.
The presence of 16 Springboks in their squad suggests they have flattered to deceive, but the hunger to succeed in the likes of hooker Bismarck du Plessis - finally playing out of the shadow of John Smit - suggests they will be a force this year.
(Editing by Mark Meadows; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com) @mark_meadows