JOHANNESBURG Feb 22 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
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,
"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
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,"
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
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
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