With an ace up their sleeve, the Sharks and Stormers will have their greatest chance yet to end their Super Rugby trophy drought this year.
So different, yet so alike. That’s how one can describe South Africa’s top two franchises in recent years.
Their gameplans could not be more contrasting, the Sharks thriving off high octane, attacking rugby while the Stormers rely on their near impregnable defence and goal-kickers to get the job done.
For their distinct tactical difference, they share the reputation as perennial bridesmaids and have long been labelled chokers due to their inability to win the big one.
The Durban side have played in four finals in the SANZAR era (in 1996, 2001, 2007 and 2012) while the men from Cape Town reached their maiden final in 2010 and hosted home semifinals in the last two years – with nothing to show for it.
That could all change this year with the introduction of a new foe in the Southern Kings and several law changes that will be used in the tournament for the first time. The farcical manner in which the Kings was included in the tournament has set the Eastern Cape franchise up to fail.
The newcomers don’t have a squad that even slightly resemble the necessary depth to stay afloat in the deep, shark-infested waters of Super Rugby and consequently, are destined to be the whipping boys of 2013.
Their loss – likely a forgettable one-year Super Rugby stint – will be South African franchises’ gain as instead of facing the traditional defiant Lions in ultra competitive derbies, the Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Cheetahs will have the opportunity to pick up ten points from their home and away conference clashes against the Kings.
As a result, South Africa are set to have three teams in the play-offs, as they did last year. The Sharks will have an additional and potentially crucial advantage under the implementation of a number of law changes.
The changes, which include the five-second rule at ruck time, have been adopted to speed up the game and therefore play directly into the hands of the Sharks and other attack-orientated sides.
The Stormers have hosted back-to-back semifinals due to their unrivalled consistency. They topped the log after the regular season last year thanks to 14 victories, two more than eventual champion Chiefs.
But they also managed the least amount of bonus points – just two – while the Sharks and Bulls both bagged 11. Contrary to popular belief, the Bulls know their way to the try-line; they scored a South African best 50 five-pointers last season, a tally eclipsed only by the Hurricanes (58).
If the Pretoria side can find an alternative for or speed up the formation of their chain of blockers for scrumhalf Francois Hougaard to avoid being hampered by the five-second rule inside their half, they should be in the top six again this year.
The Sharks and Stormers are the true title contenders, though, and considering that they will profit from a weakened national conference, the Super Rugby title could be on its way back to South Africa this year.
By Quintin van Jaarsveld