By Oliver Field
It’s that time of year again when the 14 biggest rugby franchises in the southern hemisphere face up in one of the most grueling and physical sporting tournaments worldwide. But this year’s Super 14 will be a lot different from previous years as the five South African teams go in as favourites following last year’s awesome World Cup triumph. Also, the Bulls are the first South African team to go into a super rugby tournament as defending champions for the first time in over 10 years. As always, the build up has dominated sporting headlines around the world as pundits wrack their brains for predictions in this widely followed event. However, there has been a dark cloud cast over the local teams as many top players have taken contracts abroad and are unavailable for selection. But with the likes of Francois Steyn, Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger still around, it would be unwise to write off any of the SA teams to go all the way and bring back home even more silverware.
The Crusaders are always a hard team to bet against and this year is no different. With Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter leading from the front, one could easily argue that the ‘Saders will make it to the semi finals with little trouble. The Blues are the second most successful team in Super rugby history and, despite a slightly disappointing performance last time out, their solid forward pack and lightning quick backline should provide much entertainment for supporters and nightmares for opposition.
From the four Australian teams, the loss of greats Stephen Larkham and George Gregan could hamper their season, making the Waratahs the favourites from Down Under to have any success. The exciting prospects of Kurtley Beale from the Waratahs, Niva Ta’auso of the Highlanders and the experienced Frederic Michalak whose been brought in by the Sharks, Super 14 2008 should have an enticing new aura surrounding it.
From the South African side, many have picked the Cheetahs to make an impact in their third season as an individual franchise, with a young and keen squad, following their Currie Cup coup. The Lions and the Stormers will be hoping to avoid the bottom spot, as they did last season, and one of them might surprise us by sneaking into a semi-final spot. But most will pick last year’s finalists the Bulls and the Sharks to have a repeat season and wave the flag for South Africa, going all the way once again. Whatever happens in this year’s tournament, fans around the southern hemisphere will be glued to their screens every weekend for almost four months, watching the world’s most exciting rugby tournament.