A few stallions and plenty donkeys

No South African team will make the Vodacom Super 14 semi-finals. And the tournament organisers will be lucky if an Australian side manages to disrupt New Zealand’s dominance.

In 10 years of Super 12, never has New Zealand assembled five quality regional sides in one year. The Chiefs and, to a lesser degree, the Hurricanes were invariably the poor country cousins in New Zealand’s attack on the championship. The Crusaders and Blues were always the best of the contenders, winning eight titles between them, while the Highlanders were nearly always a threat.

But things have changed radically and the Chiefs and Canes, provided their frontline XV can maintain fitness, could be contenders for a semi-final in a season in which the Crusaders and Blues are among the favourites for a top four placing.

Duncan Johnstone, rugby editor of XtraMsn in New Zealand, has tipped New Zealand to take the top four placings and he has dismissed any South African challenge.

It is difficult to aruge with Johnstone’s assessment and the only team capable of upsetting a Kiwi top four is the Waratahs. It is true the Sydneysiders have no tight five, but when has that been the determining factor in Super 12? It hasn’t. The Waratahs, though, don’t have the depth and if they lose a few frontline players they’re going to struggle. I still think they’ll crack the top four, but a final will be beyond them.

You don’t need any great insight to know that depth in squad numbers wins a team the Super 12. And when you analyse the depth of the 14 teams, South Africa and Australia fall woefully short of the Kiwis.

The South African shares are desperate. God help them all when they go on the road. Matt McIlraith, author of 10 years of Super 12 rugby, highlights that South African teams won just four out of 40 fourth week matches played on tour. Now the poor buggers have got a fifth week on tour! The tournament schedule has never been fair on the South African teams. And nothing has changed with the addition of two teams. It just got worse for the South Africans.

The best SA option is the Bulls, but they’ve lost plenty in Anton Leonard, Kees Lensing, Danie Coetzee and Christo Bezuidenhout. There is not the aura about that pack that there was a season ago. They’ve also had injury problems and teams will give them the necessary respect, which wasn’t always the case in the last two years of the tournament. The Bulls are a known factor this year and while they will still be effective at home, they’ll battle on the road if the injury bug continues to disrupt them.

The Sharks are a young side that needs Percy Montgomery and AJ Venter to play consistently well, but they will be nearer the bottom four than the top four. The Cheetahs don’t have depth and they will be found out as the tournament progresses, the Stormers offer nothing more than they did last year: talented in numbers six to 15, but embarrassingly limited in numbers one to five. The Cats are equally vulnerable and they won’t win in New Zealand. Hell, they may even struggle to win in Johannesburg.

The only saving grace for the South African sides is the presence of the Western Farce (yep they’re no force). They’ll prop up the log, but the South African teams won’t be far off the pace.

Keo’s tournament picks

1. Blues
2. Crusaders
3. Waratahs
4. Chiefs
5. Hurricanes
6. Brumbies
7. Highlanders
8. Bulls
9. Stormers
10. Reds
11. Cheetahs
12. Sharks
13. Cats
14. Force