JOHANNESBURG, February 10 – Springbok wing Bryan Habana will be a notable absentee when Northern Bulls launch their defence of the Super 14 title on Friday.
The 2007 World Player of the Year has been lured to rivals Western Stormers after helping the Pretoria-based Bulls win the southern hemisphere championship twice in the last three seasons.
A last-gasp Habana try snatched victory over Coastal Sharks in an all-South Africa 2007 decider and he crossed the line twice last May in the final rout of Waikato Chiefs at Loftus Versfeld.
The blow of losing Habana has been softened slightly by the return from Japan of utility back Jaco van der Westhuyzen while former hooker Gary Botha has quit England to bolster an already powerful pack.
Locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha have no peers in world rugby, number eight Pierre Spies is a fearsome sight when he storms toward the tryline and the champions can choose their hooker from three top-class performers.
After visiting Central Cheetahs Friday, Bulls have four consecutive home fixtures which offer a chance to build a sizeable points tally before travelling to Australasia, where they often struggle.
The second most powerful South African challenge traditionally comes from the Durban Sharks, but perennial underachievers Western Stormers may step into that role this year.
Apart from Habana, the Cape Town Stormers have also wooed Bok and Golden Lions centre Jaque Fourie to compensate for the loss of Jean de Villiers to European giants Munster.
Flanker Schalk Burger has replaced De Villiers as skipper and if the oft-criticised pack maintain the improvement of last season, Stormers can realistically hope for a top-four finish and a semi-finals slot.
Filling the shoes of Argentina fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez poses Sharks a major challenge with unproven Steve Meyer being touted for the pivotal role in a team coached by New Zealander John Plumtree.
There have been rumours of an unhappy squad with Bok lock Johann Muller heading for Ulster in mid-year while the return of skipper John Smit to hooker after a spell at tighhead means less action for Bismarck du Plessis.
New Golden Lions coach Dick Muir has recruited former All Blacks fly-half Carlos Spencer as the Johannesburg outfit try to escape the lower end of the table where they have been resident for many seasons.
But the loss of Fourie, and fellow back Louis Ludik and forward Willem Alberts to Sharks, means Bok assistant Muir and captain Cobus Grobbelaar have their work cut out.
Central Cheetahs finished last in 2009 and while they boast outstanding individuals in Bok loose forwards Juan Smith and Heinrich Brussow and a formidable front row, the Bloemfontein outfit lack depth.
The most productive South African rugby ‘nursery’ has also suffered a double blow with first-choice kicker Jacques-Louis Potgieter migrating to the Bulls and elusive runner Fabian Julies Stormers-bound.