Thu, Feb 24, 2005 - Page 20 News List

New format may benefit Springboks

INTERNATIONAL RUGBY South Africans say time zone differences and travel place them at a disadvantage in Super 12 competition, but the field may soon level out

AP , WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALANDAP, LONDON, CARDIFF, WALES, MARCOUSSIS, FRANCE AND ROMEAP, WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND

Springbok flank Schalk Burger, third from right, is tackled by Wallabies eighthman David Lyons, second from right, and flyhalf Stephen Larkham in the final Tri-Nations rugby test between South Africa and Australia, at the ABSA Stadium in Durban, South Africa on Aug. 21, 2004. The Springboks won 23-19 to win the series.

PHOTO: EPA

South African teams are yet to break the Australasian lock on the Super 12, and this year offers a final chance before the southern hemisphere's premier provincial rugby championship expands.

South Africans have traditionally claimed that time zone differences and travel place them at a disadvantage in Super 12, while observers point to internal politics, contentious race quotas, and a reticence to adopt new trends as likely factors in the African's disappointing performance.

Those issues remain, but a year before a fifth African franchise and a fourth from Australia join the competition to make up a Super 14, South Africa's outlook on this Super 12 campaign is tinged with optimism.

The Springboks' victory in last year's Tri-Nations championship has shown that South African teams can match their Australian and New Zealand rivals in a home-and-away format.

And in pre-season matches in Britain and Ireland, the Stormers beat Wasps, the Cats beat Saracens, the Bulls beat Ulster and the Sharks beat Harlequins 31-3.

Only three teams -- the ACT Brumbies from Australia's capital of Canberra and top New Zealand provinces Auckland and Canterbury -- have won the Super 12 in its nine years, and all remain favorites for 2005.

For the Brumbies, the quest for another title is a mission made more urgent by concern the development of a fourth Australian team will dilute the strength of the country's existing franchises.

South Africa is seen as less likely to suffer from expansion because it has strong rugby areas which are yet untapped and a regional reorganization might benefit existing teams.

Springboks assistant coach Allister Coetzee believes the talent exists in South Africa to claim the last Super 12 trophy.

"I hope we can have two teams in the semifinals," Coetzee said. "Our players are good enough to be right up there."

Each South African franchise will have eight black players in their 30-man squads and SARFU chief executive Johan Prinsloo believes those players will join highly competitive teams.

"SA Rugby is confident that our players will hold their own," Prinsloo said.

International oddsmaker Tattersalls has the Bulls and Stormers joint sixth favorites at 20-1 to win this year's tournament, rates the Sharks eighth and the Johannesburg-based Cats likely to fight out last place.

South Africans dispute those rankings and consider the Bulls strong playoff candidates.

The Stormers are the best balanced of the South African teams with an all-Springbok backline formed around experienced flyhalf Gaffie du Toit.

But the Stormers, under coach Gert Smal, had a pre-season blow when hooker David Britz was withdrawn from the squad after failing a drugs test.

The defending champion Brumbies are the strongest of the Australian teams, though Wallabies flyhalf Matt Giteau will miss some early matches after breaking his hand in a trial match.

New coach Laurie Fisher, whose predecessor David Nucifora is now with the Auckland Blues, has great depth at his disposal.

Wallabies captain and scrumhalf George Gregan, pivot Steve Larkham, center Stirling Mortlock, prop Bill Young give the Brumbies immense strength and experience.

"There aren't many tougher tasks in rugby than to win the Super 12," Mortlock said. "It's a big mountain to climb."

For perennial underachievers the New South Wales Waratahs, rugby league converts and Wallabies Mat Rogers and Lote Tuqiri loom as the Sydney-based team's key players.

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