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Opinion

Super Rugby 2020 preview: South African conference

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24th January, 2020
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It may be called the South African conference, but all the evidence is pointing towards a certain Argentinian side finishing the season atop it.

With several key Springboks leaving Super Rugby after the World Cup, as well as three coaching changes, 2020 looks ripe for the picking for the Jaguares as they launch a bid to make history with their maiden Super Rugby title.

We’re continuing our Super Rugby preview series here at The Roar. We looked at the New Zealand conference yesterday, before tomorrow we begin individual previews of the Australian conference sides.

View the full 2020 Super Rugby fixture here.

The teams

Bulls

View the full squad here.
Ins: Juandre Kruger, Abongile Nonkontwana, Morne Steyn, Josh Strauss, Nafi Tuitavake
Outs: Thembelani Bholi, Schalk Brits, Lood de Jager, Travis Ismaiel, Jannes Kirsten, JT Jackson, Jason Jenkins, Jesse Kriel, Hanro Liebenberg, Theo Maree, Duncan Matthews, Handre Pollard, Paul Schoeman, Roelof Smit, Chris Smith, Eli Synman, RG Snyman, Hendre Stassen, Conraad van Vuuren, Duane Vermeulen, Andre Warner

Nobody has been hit harder by post-World Cup departures than the Bulls – and they’ve copped it right between the eyes.

Captain Lood de Jager is one of six members of the Springboks World Cup squad to move on, with Duane Vermeulen, Handre Pollard, Jesse Kriel, RG Snyman and the retiring Schalk Brits all no longer with the side.

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They keep Warrick Gelant and Trevor Nyakane, but there is simply no way you can look at that list of outs and not shake your head.

To make matters worse, the Bulls look perilously thin at certain positions and have been forced to acquire some older players to fill holes. Junadre Kruger – at 34 years old – looks to be their only option at lock, while 35-year-old Morne Steyn looks (with all respect) no more than a temporary fix at flyhalf.

It all looks to result in the Bulls enduring a very long and miserable 2020.

Lions

View the full squad here.
Ins: Jannie du Plessis, Dan Kriel, Duncan Matthews, James Mollentze, Asenathi Ntlabakanye, Stean Pienaar, Ruben Schoeman, Roelof Smit, Tiaan Swanepoel, Marko Janse van Resnburg, Jamba Ulengo, Andrew Warner
Outs: Jacobie Adriaanse, Robbie Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Jo-Hanko de Villiers, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Lourens Erasmus, Chergin Fillies, Eddie Fouche, Nic Groom, Robert Kruger, Jan-Louis la Grange, Stephan Lewies, Sylvian Mahuza, Lionel Mapoe, Malcolm Marx, Danie Mienie, Franco Naude, Kwagga Smith, PJ Steenkamp, Madosh Tambwe, Bradley Thain, Morne van den Berg, Wayne van der Bank, James Venter, Harold Vorster, Warren Whiteley

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The Lions saw their reign atop the South African conference come to an end last season and 2020 doesn’t look like the year they rise back up. Only three Lions players made the World Cup squad last year and the Johannesburg side have lost two of them; Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith.

That’s nowhere near the chaos some teams have had wreaked upon them but, for a team that only finished 8-8 a season ago and down 77 in points differential, that could be enough to tip the scales heavily the other way.

That said, the Lions did some shopping around the conference and picked up a few players from other sides in good age brackets. Dan Kriel, Duncan Matthews, Andre Warner and Roelof Smit should go some way to shoring up areas of weakness and keep the side competitive in most games they play.

Finals are probably beyond them, but the Lions have done enough to avoid a freefall.

Lions fly-half Elton Jantjies

Lions captain Elton Jantjies (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Sharks

View the full squad here.
Ins: Thaakir Abrahams, Jordan Chait, Boeta Chamberlain, Celimpilo Gumede, Murray Koster, Michael Kumbirai, Ox Nche, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Adisa Ntsila, JP Pietersen, Evan Roos, Le Roux Rouets, Jordan Sesink-Clee, Madosh Tambwe, Emile van Heerden, Henco Venter, James Venter
Outs: Ruan Botha, Cullen Collopy, Kwanda Dimaza, Muller du Plessis, Dan du Preez, Jean-Luc du Preez, Robert du Preez, Andrew Evans, Gideon Koegelenberg, Zee Mkhabela, Tendai Mtawarira, Coenie Oosthuizen, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Rhyno Smith, Luke Stringer, Akker van der Merwe, Philip van der Walt, Courtney Winnaar, Kobus van Wyk, Jacques Vermeulen, Wian Vosloo, Leolin Zas

The way this team has played over the last two seasons, they could have lost their entire squad and you’d still wonder whether they can somehow sneak into eighth.

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Fortunately, for Sharks fans, they didn’t lose much of their top-end talent, with 34-year-old Tendai Mtawarira easily the biggest loss. The loss of the entire du Preez clan, however, proves disruptive.

Still, with a reasonably well-balanced core of talent in most positions, there’s no reason the Sharks can’t take advantage of downturns in the New Zealand conference and get crushed in the first week of the finals again this season.

Thomas du Toit of the Sharks

Thomas du Toit of the Sharks. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Stormers

View the full squad here.
Ins: Ben-Jason Dixon, Schalk Erasmus, Michal Haznar, David Kriel, Tristan Leyds, Leon Lyons, Godlen Masimla, Matt More, Rikus Pretorius, Jamie Roberts, Sazi Sandi, Cornel Smit, Leolin Zas
Outs: Craig Barry, Damian de Allende, JJ Engelbrecht, Eben Etzebeth, Corne Fourie, Michael Kumbirai, Dan Kriel, SP Marais, Chris Massyn, Lee-Marvin Mazibuko, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Justin Phillips, Marno Redelinghuys, Duncan Saal, Ramone Samuels, Joshua Stander, Kobus van Dyk, Alistair Vermaak, Jano Vermaak, EW Viljoen

If one team is going to have a shot at knocking off the Jaguares this season, it’ll be the Cape Town Stormers.

In an offseason and preseason where so much discussion has revolved around World Cup players moving on, the Stormers have flagrantly disregarded that trend by holding onto a whopping seven of the nine Springboks they sent to Japan.

Seeing Damian de Allende and Eben Etzebeth off would be sad, but when you realise Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Steve Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Damien Willemse and Herschel Jantjies are all staying put, you’d get over things pretty quickly.

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New coach John Dobson has no excuses not to have his side handing out grief to their local rivals, while also giving the Argentinians a good shake.

Siya Kolisi of the Stormers looks on

Siya Kolisi staying with the Stormers is a huge boost. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Jaguares

View the full squad here.
Ins: Tomas Albornoz, Juan Bautista Pedemonte, Ignacio Calas, Mateo Carreras, Lucas Mensa, Santiago Montagner, Juan Pablo Castro, Joel Sclavi
Outs: Gaspar Baldunciel, Bautista Ezcurra, Diego Fortuny, Santiago Garcia Botta, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, Martin Landajo, Tomas Lavanini, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Pablo Matera, Ignacio Mendy, Franco Molina, Ramiro Moyano, Enrique Pieretto

Nobody escapes a post-World Cup year completely unscathed and the Jaguares are no exception. In total, five Pumas players won’t be returning, however, only two of them are really significant losses.

Pablo Matera’s departure to French rugby hurts, although he did play just five games for the club in 2018, while Tomas Lavanini’s contributions up forward will be missed too. The other three ‘losses’ – Juan Manuel Leguizamo, Ramiro Moyano and Enrique Pieretto – have played just 21 games between for the club over the last four seasons and hardly count as big departures for that reason.

The stability that comes with being one of just three teams in all of Super Rugby to not change their captain or coach coming into this season puts them at a huge advantage in the particularly volatile South African conference and, after topping it last year, there’s no reason to suggest they won’t be sitting in first place when the home-and-away season ends.

Pablo Matera

The Jaguares should be able to cover Pablo Matera’s absence with ease. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

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Players to watch

Dan Kriel (Lions)
Now at his third Super Rugby club, it’s time for the twin brother of celebrated Springbok Jesse to deliver on his potential and come into his own.

At 25 years of age, but turning 26 in February, the former Bull and Stormer has a golden opportunity to lock down the centre position, alongside Duncan Matthews, with only two 21-year-olds as serious threats to the 12 and 13 jerseys.

Whoever wins the Bulls flyhalf gig
With Handre Pollard off to Montpellier, the Bulls – who have holes to fill all over the ground – have some interesting decisions to make in the halves. While youngsters Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier will fight for the scrumhalf position, the direction they go at no.10 will be interesting.

Veteran Morne Steyn – of 66 Springboks caps – has been brought back from a long stint in French rugby to plug the gap but, at 35, can’t seriously be viewed as the long-term solution. How much leash they give him and how much they try to incorporate promising 22-year-old Manie Libbok will be interesting to watch.

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Lucas Mensa (Jaguares)
The 23-year-old centre was the only amateur inclusion in Argentina’s World Cup squad last year and now looks set to have a breakout season.

If he can muscle his way into a midfield partnership with Jeronimo de la Fuente, he could quickly become one of the bigger names in Argentinian rugby. This could be the start of a journey we all see fulfilled at the 2023 World Cup.

Prediction

The Jaguares finished atop this conference a season ago and all four of their opponents enter 2020 as weaker sides. Anything but a second-consecutive conference title for the South Americans will be a huge surprise.

Beyond that, the Stormers look to be the only team with any hope of keeping pace, while we’re also backing the Sharks to do what they do best and play reasonably well despite having little right to do so on paper.

The Lions will probably finish just beneath that trio – but could overtake the Sharks – while 2020 looks be a very, very long one for the Bulls.

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1. Jaguares
2. Stormers
3. Sharks
4. Lions
5. Bulls

Super Rugby previews

New Zealand conference