CAPE TOWN, (Reuters) - The Lions have endured defeat in the last three Super Rugby finals and even with the loss of key players to Europe look set to be South Africa’s most likely title contenders again in a season where thoughts will be dominated by the Rugby World Cup.
How Springboks players are managed through the campaign will be a primary concern for national team coach Rassie Erasmus, who has developed strong lines of communication to the coaches of the country’s four Super Rugby sides in a bid to strike a balance between game time and rest.
The Lions’ chances of going from bridesmaid to bride in 2019 will depend largely on how they patch up their pack following the loss of flank Jaco Kriel, lock Franco Mostert, and props Ruan Dreyer and Jacques van Rooyen to the English Premiership.
They go into a second season under coach Swys de Bruin, who acted as attack consultant to the Springboks last year and acknowledged that his selections will be influenced by the “bigger picture” and the World Cup in Japan.
Up the road in Pretoria, the Bulls have a new coach in Pote Human, who replaced John Mitchell after the latter joined England as defence coach.
The Bulls have added considerable experience to their squad in the form of hooker Schalk Brits and number eight Duane Vermeulen, while there will be interest in how centre Dylan Sage steps up from the Rugby Sevens circuit to the 15-man game.
Their game will be built around flyhalf Handre Pollard and his ability to dictate the tempo and territory in matches, with his impressive understudy Manie Libbok, 21, sure to be given a run as Pollard is rested during the season.
The Bulls have also signed Cornal Hendricks, with the former Springboks wing returning to professional rugby after three years on the sidelines with a heart condition.
The Sharks scraped into the quarter-finals last season but despite having a backline filled with potential Springboks may do well to repeat that feat.
They managed just a single victory on the road last season, a riotous 63-40 win over the Auckland Blues, and will once again rely on King’s Park to be a fortress, even as crowds dwindle in Durban.
There is no doubt that the Stormers underperformed in the 2018 season but there is no guarantee they will be able to pull themselves out of that malaise with off-field squabbles that have threatened their stability ever in the background.
The Cape Town-based side did not manage a single away victory in the last campaign, form that ultimately cost them a quarter-finals place, despite having what looked on paper a squad brimming with quality.
That has put pressure on coach Robbie Fleck but he has been retained for a fourth season, which at least provides some continuity.
The Stormers have drafted in a number of players from the Under 21 set-up which, coupled with the inevitable resting of the likes of Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Steven Kitshoff, makes a challenge for the title unlikely.
It is also all change at the Jaguares from Argentina, who impressed in finishing second in the South African Conference last season after winning all four of their matches in Australia and New Zealand, as well as strong home form.
They have a new coach in Gonzalo Quesada and a new captain in centre Jerónimo de la Fuente, as well as 10 additions to their squad.
But they have lost a lot of experience at flyhalf with the retirement of Juan Martin Hernandez and Nicolas Sanchez’s move to France, and have also dropped experienced number eight Leonardo Senatore in a surprise move.