Sharks, Stormers tipped for S14 success

Former Springbok assistant coach Alan Solomons believes the Sharks or Stormers could become the second South African winners of the Super 14 while his outlook for New Zealand’s franchises is bleak.

Solomons, who currently works as a high performance consultant for the IRB, coached the Stormers to a semi-final in 1999 and was also the assistant to Nick Mallett during a golden period for the Springboks when they went 17 Tests undefeated. In addition, he has also coached Ulster to the Celtic Cup title.

Speaking to keo.co.za from Belfast, Solomons predicted that the quality of the Sharks’ squad and their coaching staff meant they had the best chance of winning the tournament, but he noted that the Stormers were an emerging force who would build on their improvement in 2008, and challenge for the title this season.

“My money is on the Sharks and Stormers to make the play-offs and then for one of them to kick on from there and win the whole thing,” he told this website.

“South Africa are currently in a golden cycle in terms of the calibre of players we’re producing or currently have playing the game at Super 14 level, and the Sharks in particular have the bulk of those elite players. They have the depth in talent, and in [John] Plumtree they have an outstanding coach. Their strength lies in the fact that they can rotate their squad and still field an unbelievable unit.

“The Stormers did well under Rassie [Erasmus - head coach] in 2008. I liked the brand of rugby they played and they’ve made some good signings between now and then. They’ll build on what they achieved last year and if they can get into the semi-final anything can happen on the day.”

Solomons noted that it would be a defining season for Bulls coach Frans Ludeke, who last year failed to mount a successful title defence with the Pretoria franchise.

“Last year was tough for Frans. He had just taken over the defending champions and replaced Heyneke Meyer, who had built that squad of players over a number of years,” he said.

“He struggled to put his unique mark on that side, which makes 2009 a defining year for him. He did well in the Currie Cup, but the measure of the man will come in the Super 14. He’ll be helped tremendously by the return of [Victor] Matfield though. I think people underestimate his impact from a playing and leadership perspective. It’ll be huge.

“There’s a question mark about how they’ll go, but I certainly think they’ll finish in the top half of the table. That said, if they play to their potential consistently they have the ability to win the tournament.”

His outlook for the Lions and Cheetahs was less optimistic however. Solomons identified a lack of depth as the primary challenges they would have to overcome if they hoped to be involved at the business end of the tournament, but he didn’t foresee them finishing in the top half of the table.

Meanwhile, Solomons noted the mass exodus of players from New Zealand to Europe would continue to hurt them.

“You could probably pick a very strong All Blacks side from the New Zealanders playing in Europe,” he said. “Their franchises have suffered with some top players deciding to move north and [Dan] Carter’s and [Robbie] Deans’s departures will certainly make the Crusaders vulnerable.

“Neither they nor Australia have the depth of talent we have to combat an exodus like that. When I was coach of the Stormers [between 1997 and 2000] the New Zealand blokes would often tell me that a fifth New Zealand franchise is not sustainable because they simply didn’t have the quality of players to fill five.

“This all points to a successful year for the Sharks and Stormers. I’m very positive about their chances. In fact, if they manage to keep their core of their sides together over the next four or five years, they could well dominate in the manner the Crusaders have.”

By Ryan Vrede