Super Rugby South Africa conference preview 2019 with Greg Growden

Will Warren Whiteley and his Lions retain their status as top dogs in the South African conference? Phil Walter/Getty Images

The Super Rugby season is once again upon us, with a full round of fixtures set down for the opening weekend of competition from Feb. 15.

Here, we analyse the South African conference and ESPN columnist Greg Growden offers his thoughts on each of the five franchises.

BULLS

Coach: Pote Human

Captain: Lood de Jager

Last year: The season began with hope of a resurgence under John Mitchell, and victory over the Hurricanes in their opening fixture, albeit edgy, hinted at better things to come. Consecutive away defeats by the Lions, Reds, Chiefs and Crusaders dented the confidence, however, and it never really returned; they had plenty of weapons going forward, and indeed the Bulls scored 59 tries (bettered only by teams that made the playoffs, but there was always the hint of a soft underbelly that didn't take too much finding - including by the Sunwolves (again). Their fundamental inability to stop opponents (they ranked lowly in tackle percentage and missed tackles, so it was no surprise they shipped 66 tries) combined with injuries and ill-discipline (only the Reds and Jaguares conceded more penalties through the entire season, including finals) to see them finish last in the South African Conference and 12th on the overall ladder. Perhaps that was all to be expected from such a young squad (their starting XV that defeated the Jaguares in Pretoria was the youngest by average age -- 22 years 10 days -- for any team all year, by more than two years). They were particularly disappointing against out-of-conference rivals, winning only two of eight such fixtures. Individually, Jesse Kriel was the standout performer in scoring an equal team-high seven tries and making 26 of the Bulls' 177 clean breaks.

This year: The Bulls have made two key signings for this season - namely Springboks No. 8 Duane Vermeulen and formerly retired hooker Schalk Brits - and the pair's experience and ability will be key if new coach Pote Human, John Mitchell's assistant last season, is to develop the team's defence and fortitude. That and, hopefully, the long-term fitness of skipper Lood de Jager, who is central to everything when he's on the field. Vermeulen's powerful ball-running gives them an edge they have lacked for a while, but that could be offset in part by the absence of R.G. Snyman for eight weeks with an ankle injury; the second-rower's 27 offloads last year (more than 50 percent of the meagre team tally of 130) were a key part of the Bulls' adventure with the ball. Snyman is not the only long-term absentee as the injury curse that hit last season is seemingly lingering, with Travis Ismail, Jaco Visagie, Marnitz Boshoff, Edgar Marutlulle, Marco van Staden and Jano Venter all sidelined already for various periods. The Bulls have also lost former Springboks hooker Adriaan Strauss to retirement - and his are big boots for Brits to fill - but the addition of South Africa Blitzboks stars Rosko Specman, Dylan Sage and Stedman Gans provides interesting new attacking options out back. Much will depend on Human's game plan (if not the abilities of the physios), but the newly appointed head coach seems sure at least to try to maintain, develop and complement the elements that worked last season - his Blue Bulls certainly tried to play with adventure in last season's Currie Cup -- rather than going back to scratch. Given their issues against out-of-conference rivals last year, it'll be interesting to see how they go this season as their fixtures seem tougher this time round given they have a four-match tour towards the end of the campaign compared with a three-game trip early in the 2018 season, but the flip side is that all but one of their opening 11 matches are in South Africa and the conference itself seems very even.

Fixtures: Stormers (h), Jaguares (a), Lions (a), Sharks (h), Chiefs (h), Sharks (a), Jaguares (h), Reds (h), Stormers (a), Waratahs (h), Crusaders (h), Rebels (a), Brumbies (a), Blues (a), Highlanders (a), Lions (h)

Greg Growden says: This is a very weak conference, and the Bulls are very, very weak. At least they have some reasonable players returning, including Duane Vermeulen from Japan and Schalk Britz from Saracens. Nonetheless can't see them being anything more than speed bumps this season. If they finish any higher than last year's 12th spot it will be an achievement.

Predicted conference finish: Fourth in South African conference

JAGUARES

Coach: Gonzalo Quesada

Captain: Jerónimo de la Fuente

Last year: The Jaguares made the playoffs for the first time in just their third campaign, on the back of a Crusaders-like seven-match winning run that featured road victories against the Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Chiefs. Counterpoint to that impressive run was a meh 5-3 win-loss record at home that featured defeat by the Reds in Round 5, and, more notably, given they play in the South African conference, a 0-4 record on the road in the Republic. They topped the tournament rankings in terms of rucks and in building phases, while only the grand finalists, the Crusaders and Lions, carried the ball more often; they also ranked highly in terms of defenders beaten, and developed the No. 3 lineout in the competition based around the efforts primarily of Guido Petti Pagadizaval. Their ranking for metres carried was only average, however; their scrum was statistically the worst in the competition; and their scoring record was indicative of their failings. They scored only 53 tries (the 10th-best tally in the competition, with, interestingly, only nine scored by forwards compared with 27 by wingers), while only the Sharks kicked more penalty goals through the season, primarily because they lacked execution inside the red zone having been good in areas where they were allowed to play. That said, it's worth noting they ranked No.4 for penalties awarded, and opponents often elected to concede the goal kick rather than another phase (or two or three). Emiliano Boffelli was the brightest individual star with 10 tries and 28 clean breaks through the season, while Bautista Delgay, also with 10 tries was another stud in the back three.

This year: The Jaguares open with three straight fixtures at home, against the Lions, the Bulls and the Blues, and they should be hopeful of winning each if they are to hold genuine hopes of playing in the finals again. The fact they get this run of games could be key because travel to and from Argentina is every bit the same issue for the Jaguares as it is for their opponents, even though they have blocks of games at home. And whatever success they enjoy this season, it must be achieved without Nicolas Sanchez. The mercurial fly-half is now plying his trade in France, and the Jaguares are yet to publicly anoint his successor in the No. 10 jumper. Still, they have a solid squad on paper, and the addition of Pumas breakout back-rower Rodrigo Bruni among 10 new faces, including seven from the Argentina Under-20 set up, should ensure fresh vibrancy for the new coach.

Fixtures: Lions (h), Bulls (h), Blues (h), Lions (a), Stormers (a), Chiefs (h), Bulls (a), Sharks (a), Brumbies (h), Stormers (h), Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (a), Waratahs (a), Reds (a), Sharks (h), Sunwolves (h)

Greg Growden says: In a World Cup year, it is time for a near-strength international side to pull their finger out and produce something worthwhile. There was some improvement last year when they rose to seventh, but more should be anticipated from a side that has so much in their favour, including a tough travel schedule for opponents having to get to Buenos Aires, as well as a conference with numerous B-grade outfits. Nothing less than a semifinal spot is acceptable.

Predicted conference finish: First in South African conference

LIONS

Coach: Swys du Bruin

Captain: Warren Whiteley

Last year: South African conference champions and tournament runners-up to a better New Zealand opponent for the third season in succession, but they were nowhere near as far ahead of their conference rivals as they had been in the previous two campaigns and they were 0-5 against NZ opposition; indeed, having taken the honours with a 14-1 win-loss record in 2017, they topped the Jaguares in their conference in 2018 principally only on bonus points -- with the teams boasting identical 9-7 win-loss records. They were still a good team, even during the injury-enforced absence of inspirational skipper Warren Whiteley, and they used their weapons -- prowess with ball in hand; strike running, notably from Andries Coetzee; lineout; scrum; rolling maul; ability to effect turnovers; excellent discipline - to tally a tournament-high 33.2 points per game during pool play. But their defensive numbers were nowhere near as good as they had been in 2017, or as good as they needed to be; they made an average 11 tackles more per game than in the previous campaign, their ranking for missed tackles and tackle percentage was substantially diminished, and there was a sense that their win-loss record was padded by playing in an average conference en route to the finals and the decider against the Crusaders in Christchurch. That win-loss record included defeats by the Blues, the Reds and the Sharks away (their first defeat by a South African opponent since May 2015, after a changed line-up had played a get-out-of-jail-free card against the Stormers at Newlands the week before), but professional wins against the Waratahs (29-0 in Sydney during inter-conference play, and 44-26 in the semifinals having trailed 14-0 inside 10 minutes at Ellis Park) showed they could still put it together. They opened the final in Christchurch in dominant fashion, but the Crusaders conceded only three points in surviving the onslaught then scored 20 unanswered points and stopped the Lions' rolling maul; the visitors' execution then failed them as they chased the game under pressure.

This year: How do the Lions cover the loss of Franco Mostert to play for former coach Johan Ackerman at Guinness Premiership club Gloucester? Rarely has one question been asked so many times. The second-row has developed into a one-man wrecking ball, who was ranked No. 1 in Super Rugby last season for both lineout wins and tackles (25 more than the next best in both categories), and inside the top 10 for carries. Likely the Lions and their fans only now are going to realise how they miss him, and one-cap Springboks lock Stephan Lewies, signed from the Sharks, will have had an immense season if he evens half-fills Mostert's boots. One man does not make a side, however, and the Lions' squad otherwise looks strong enough on paper to make another run at the conference title - particularly if Warren Whiteley stays fit. They'll look at their fixture list and consider it highly workable even though they open against the Jaguares in Argentina, where they are yet to win, and face both the Chiefs and Crusaders away; notably they have just a three-game tour this year, and they play four of their final six matches of the conference campaign at Ellis Park (and all six in South Africa). That schedule might just be the key to their hopes this season, but still there is a sense they need homefield advantage through the finals if they are finally to lift the trophy.

Fixtures: Jaguares (a), Stormers (a), Bulls (h), Jaguares (h), Rebels (h), Sunwolves (a), Sharks (h), Brumbies (a), Chiefs (a), Crusaders (a), Waratahs (h), Highlanders (h), Sharks (a), Stormers (h), Hurricanes (h), Bulls (a).

Greg Growden says: They've lost a few reasonable players, such as Franco Mostert and Jaco Kriel, and haven't really lured anything sensational to cover. However this is an outfit recently accustomed to winning, and so boast considerable inner confidence- a crucial plus during a long season. There's enough Springboks in the ranks to ensure they will tussle with the Jaguares for the conference title.

Predicted conference finish: Second in South African conference

SHARKS

Coach: Robert du Preez

Captain: Louis Schreuder

Last year: The Sharks were the offload kings of Super Rugby; not any of New Zealand teams, who otherwise dominated the stats category, but the Sharks, with Jean-Luc du Preez leading the players' numbers and Andre Esterhuizen featuring in the top 10. They also completed 215 clean breaks to rank among the Waratahs, Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes - all teams with a more dynamic reputation. And this from a team whose coach had promised a "traditional" approach. In fairness, the approach was otherwise traditional - based around a kicking game designed to play in opposition territory, kicking goals rather than for corners, and heavy-hitting defence that saw them win more tackles than any other team. Given those numbers, the biggest surprise is not that they made the playoffs but that they recorded a negative-split 16-7-1-8 record. That record was testament to inconsistency that saw them post a 3-1 win-loss record against New Zealand teams (beating the Blues away and the Chiefs and the Highlanders at home, and losing by just a point to the Hurricanes in Napier having conceded the winning converted try five minutes after the fulltime siren) while becoming the first South African team to beat the Lions since 2015, only to be undermined by a 0-1-2 record against Australian teams and home-and-away defeats by the Bulls. That inconsistency was due largely to the fact that they committed 336 handling errors in their complete season, including 19 in the quarterfinal defeat by the Crusaders, a high number given the low-risk game the generally implemented; conceded a competition-high 269 turnovers; and tallied just 50 tries.

This year: This Sharks seem to have a favourable draw in as much as they can likely be expected at this point to be favourites in eight of their first nine games before heading on tour to face the Waratahs, Crusaders and Chiefs; that's a tough tour, of course, but the Sharks are one team historically that knows how to win and claim bonus points on tour -- in particular in New Zealand. They have a settled squad, with the acquisition of exciting young lock Ruben van Heerden from the Bulls looking to offset the loss of Stephan Lewies to the Lions, and their solid if workmanlike pack is bolstered by a backline featuring Louis Schreuder, Robert du Preez, Lukhanyo Am, Andre Esterhuizen, Makazole Mapimpi and Sibusiso Nkosi. That's plenty of strike if they can reduce the errors.

Fixtures: Sunwolves (a), Blues (h), Stormers (h), Bulls (a), Rebels (h), Bulls (h), Lions (a), Jaguares (h), Reds (h), Waratahs (a), Crusaders (a), Chiefs (a), Lions (h), Hurricanes (h), Jaguares (a), Stormers (a).

Greg Growden says: The Sharks have been drowning for some time, floundering with a flawed dog-paddle stroke for years. There's nothing too inspiring in their team list, recruitment has been very low key and the retirement of Keegan Daniel won't help. Even the spa baths on the Kings Park sideline are no longer the attraction they once were. This looms as a grim season.

Predicted conference finish: Last in South African conference

STORMERS

Coach: Robbie Fleck

Captain: Siya Kolisi

Last year: They Stormers bookended their campaign with home victories against the Jaguares and the Sharks that each raised hopes - there seemingly is always hope for the blue-and-white -- but there was little to celebrate in between, and fourth on the South African ladder and 11th overall, beating the Bulls only on points differential, was a fair reflection of their season. They scored a competition-worst 46 tries and ranked 11th or worse in most every meaningful attacking statistics category. They suffered injuries of course, with Eben Etzebeth's season-long absence the most notable, but still they were disappointing (if not worse) in most every facet of the game, most every week, even in the games they won or coulda-woulda-shoulda won. Among the mistakes and bland predictability, Damian de Allande and Pieter-Steph du Toit (predictably) were the individual stars. The team seemed to lack direction or a game plan on the field, as if they were confused and did not know what to do. Which, of course, might have been the case given the reports from within the franchise of uncertainty about coach Robbie Fleck; and then they had the bizarre arrangement whereby defence coach Paul Treu, the former Blitzboks sevens head coach, took charge of attack in the first three phases and then defence, while skills coach Paul Feeney was responsible for defence in the first three phases and attack beyond that. No wonder there was confusion. The Stormers and their fans would like to forget last season; but they need remember what went wrong, and why, if they are to improve in 2019.

This year: We'll start with the positive. The Stormers have a strong pack featuring Springboks Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Stephen Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Wilco Louw, with Corne Fourie (signed from the Lions, Cobus Wiese and J.D Schickerling adding depth; then of course there is Juarno Augustus, World Rugby Under 20 Championship Player of the Tournament in 2017 and a rising star of South African rugby. It's hard to see the Stormers taking too many steps backwards up front. But then ... it's very different behind the scrum, where they have little in the way of creativity or proven excitement outside Damian Willemse and de Allende. And it remains to be seen how the off-field distractions play out; certainly Robbie Fleck said recently they players were "fed up" with the situation. Much was made of the draw last season, as they faced a very early three-match tour after beating the Jaguares to open their campaign, with byes in Rounds 9 and 19, but things in all honesty don't look much better this time. They have byes in Rounds 4 and 13, but they could feasibly be looking at being 0-8 when they return from their four-match tour (given their road woes last season) or perhaps, at best, 3-5 if they do regain the ability to win away from Newlands). That's a long way back from there.

Fixtures: Bulls (a), Lions (h), Sharks (a), Jaguares (h), Hurricanes (a), Blues (a), Reds (a), Rebels (a), Brumbies (h), Bulls (h), Jaguares (a), Crusaders (h), Highlanders (h), Lions (a), Sunwolves (h), Sharks (h).

Greg Growden says: Have been active in recruiting players from here, there and everywhere, and that could provide them with the desired boost after a string of meandering seasons. This is a province that considering its talent base should have produced far greater results, and coach Robbie Fleck could easily be the latest Stormers coach to be moved on if they fail to improve on their underwhelming 2018 11th placing.

Predicted conference finish: Third in South African conference.