Victor Matfield, the Pretoria Bulls captain, has issued an ominous warning to the rest of the competition by saying the champions plan to raise the bar this season. The Bulls were hugely convincing winners last year, winning 12 of their 15 games and producing a masterclass in the final to completely overwhelm the Waikato Chiefs 61-17.
The Pretoria franchise can certainly not be accused of resting on their laurels after recruiting Jacques-Louis Potgieter - the standout fly-half in last season's Currie Cup - Bees Roux, the giant tight-head prop, and Flip van der Merwe, the second row, from the Free State Cheetahs. All three have to be content with a place on the bench against their former team tomorrow but Gary Botha will make his 50th appearance for the Bulls after returning from a two-year stint at Harlequins, the English Premiership club.
"We all strive to improve," warned Matfield. "It is a fact that 2009 was a remarkable season, but the work ethic at the Bulls does not allow you to rest on your laurels. "We want to be the team with the best line-outs, we want the best scrum in the competition, and we want to play more positive rugby from broken play. I can continue, but what it boils down to is that we will never be satisfied." Matfield will play his 96th game in the competition when he leads his team out against the Cheetahs and will captain a side that boasts Springboks Zane Kirchner, Wynand Olivier, Morne Steyn, Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies, Danie Russouw and Gurthro Steenkamp.
Frans Ludeke, the Bulls coach, insists his three new recruits will not provide him with the inside track on the Bulls' first opponents but, in truth, the Cheetahs will be more concerned with how to thwart the Bulls. "The local teams know each other so well by know, there is actually not much to tell," he says. "The Cheetahs and Bulls always seem to bring out the best in each other, as was seen in the last couple of years. Both want to dominate and that is no secret."
The Bulls are the only South African team to have triumphed in the Super 14 competition, and Ludeke's team have won two of the last three tournaments. Elsewhere in the opening round of fixtures, the Golden Lions face the Cape Town Stormers in Johannesburg tomorrow in another all-South African contest, with doubts still surrounding the fitness of Schalk Burger, the Stormers captain and South Africa international.
The flanker, 26, injured a shoulder after just 14 minutes of the Stormers' final warm-up game against a Boland XV in Cape Town on Saturday. He did not train on Tuesday, but Allister Coetzee, the Stormers coach, is expected to name the Springbok loose forward in the starting line-up for the game at Coca-Cola Park. Coetzee also has the advantage of calling on the services of Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie, South Africa's World Cup-winning players who both joined the Stormers in the off-season. Habana, the winger, was part of the triumphant Bulls team last year.
Fourie, the Springbok centre, will return to his former home ground tomorrow after leaving the Lions following a contract dispute. With Andries Bekker, Juan de Jongh and Duane Vermeulen in their ranks, the Stormers are expected to run the Bulls close for the title. Dick Muir takes charge of the Lions in a Super 14 match for the first time after the South Africa backs' coach took over from Eugene Eloff as head coach in November.
The Lions finished 12th in last year's competition, while the Stormers ended in 10th place. The Natal Sharks, three-time losing finalists, begin their 2010 campaign with a home game in Durban against last year's runners-up the Chiefs. The Sharks' build up to the opener at the ABSA Stadium has been interrupted by contract disputes involving Willem Alberts, the No 8, and Louis Ludik, the full-back.
The Lions union claimed last month that both players, who have been involved in the Sharks' Super 14 preparations, are contracted to them until the end of this season. On Wednesday a South African Rugby Union judicial officer said he could not rule on the validity of the players' contracts with the Lions. This year is the final year of the Super 14. The southern hemisphere's club rugby competition expands to 15 teams in 2011 with the addition of a fifth Australian franchise, the Melbourne Rebels.
* With agencies