JOHANNESBURG // Even by South African rugby standards, the build up to the 2009 Super 14 has been dramatic. The Cheetahs and the Sharks bickered after their pre-season friendly in Dubai was cancelled - the global credit crunch was blamed - and a subsequent friendly in South Africa went the same way. Luke Watson, who infamously rallied against Afrikaners and threatened to "puke on the Springbok jersey", was heckled in a warm-up game against Saracens in late January. And, finally, some teams were left scrambling for kit after their supplier went belly-up.
For all that, most of the South Africa Super 14 sides look formidable, threatening and well-prepared. The best of them appear to be the Sharks, who won the 2008 domestic title, the Currie Cup. They have bought sparingly in the off-season, with New Zealand coach John Plumtree preferring the players he already has, including the likes of Ruan Pienaar, John Smit, Beast Mtawarira, Francois Steyn and JP Pietersen.
With Frederic Michalak back at Toulouse, the focus at fly-half will switch to Pienaar. A natural scrum-half, he is reluctant to embrace the new position, even though it is where the national selectors want him to play given that the British and Irish Lions are due to tour in May. The Sharks are powerful up front and out wide with no discernible weaknesses. Other South African hopes are heavily invested in the Stormers. They have the ideal start (three home games) and there's a good balance to the side, which is led by Jean de Villiers. They are defensively robust and potent in broken play, yet if they have a vulnerability it is in the tight five, where they struggle; a point the Saracens coach Eddie Jones made when he slammed the forwards after they had beaten his English team 43-33.
"People criticise Australian teams for not being able to scrum and I come to South Africa and there's a side that can't scrum. What's going on?" But the Stormers are full of talent and Schalk Burger, Andries Bekker, Sireli Naqelevuki and Tonderai Chavhanga are world class while Nick Koster, 19, is likely to be the next big thing in rugby. Up country, the Bulls have their backers, but without coach Heyneke Meyer, they appear pretenders rather than contenders.
Even with star players Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana, they look a little underdone, a point underscored by three pre-season defeats. The Cheetahs and the Lions will offer traditional fare: they will be gutsy and adventurous, but lack the depth and range of world-class talent to escape the bottom half of the table. firstname.lastname@example.org