With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Next up, the Bulls!
After a mass exit at the end of last season, a new-look Bulls outfit looks unlikely to defend their crown in the South African conference.
Last Year: For 16 out of 17 games the Bulls did what they do best: They stuck to their structures, got results when the chips were down and won all their games on home soil. Second place in the overall standings and a home semi-final were the rewards.It was an impressive campaign considering their tough draw.
Then the unthinkable happened - fortress Loftus Versfeld was conquered by the Brumbies thanks to a Tevita Kuridrani try at the death and all that hard work was for naught.
The human resources situation then changed rapidly in Pretoria as no less than 15 players left, 10 of whom went to overseas clubs. Springboks from every department, from the front row to full-back, packed their bags, gutting the squad of experience. The ensuing Currie Cup was a disaster as the Blue Bulls finished second last, a long way off the pace.
This year: The biggest news in the Republic over the past months has been Victor Matfield's comeback. For most outside observers, it seems like madness but in the context of the Bulls' exodus of senior players, it's a godsend. The departure of Morné Steyn is the biggest loss to any team in the competition. Since the days of Naas Botha, Bulls rugby has been based around having an ultra-reliable goal kicker and the loss of the tournament's top points scorer last season (and the second highest of all time) is a huge blow. He is irreplaceable.
All is not lost though as South Africa's most successful team has plenty of top -class players, and a 10-12-13 combination of Handré Pollard, Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht could well be seen in green and gold at the 2020 World Cup.
One thing you can always count on from the Bulls is consistency. They have also been handed an amazing draw, not playing the Crusaders, nor the Reds and hosting the Chiefs, Brumbies and Blues at Loftus. Their tour is also significantly easy than last year, with the Waratahs, Force, Highlanders and Hurricanes providing winnable games.
Players to watch: After a long injury layoff, 2014 is set to be a massive season for Pierre Spies, who has a lot to prove if he wants to regain the Springbok number eight jersey. His leadership will also be critical in what will be a tough start to the campaign. Hailed a star of the future after winning the Junior World Championships, fly-half Handre Pollard has massive boots to fill while his former Baby Bok team-team Jan Serfontein will want to build on an impressive start to his international career. Francois Hougaard must prove that he can be reliable as he faces stiff competition from ex-Cheetah Piet van Zyl for the number nine jersey. Jacques Engelbrecht was excellent for the Kings last year, and he has the chance to grab the attention of the national selectors.
Noteworthy signings: Bandise Maku (Kings), Victor Matfield, Jacques Engelbrecht (Kings), Piet van Zyl (Cheetahs), Jacques-Louis Potgieter (Dax), Waylon Murray (Kings)
Noteworthy departures: Chiliboy Ralepelle (Toulouse), Juandré Kruger (Racing Métro), Wilhelm Steenkamp (Force), Dewald Potgieter (Yamaha), Jacques Potgieter (Waratahs), Ruan Snyman (Racing Métro), Jano Vermaak (Toulouse), Morné Steyn (Stade Français), Wynand Olivier (Montpellier), Lionel Mapoe (return to Lions), Zane Kirchner (Leinster)
Prospects: There is no substitute for experience and even with Matfield's massive presence, it's hard to see this young Bulls team at the top of the South African conference come July, especially were you consider the strength of the squads in Durban and Cape Town. As mentioned above, their draw is a fortunate one and if they can avoid injuries in key positions, they'll fly the blue flag high. Midtable is realistic, but the playoffs will be tough to crack.
Sat 15 Feb: v Sharks - away
Fri 21 Feb: v Cheetahs - away
Sat 01 Mar: v Lions - home
Sat 08 Mar: v Blues - home
Sat 22 Mar: v Sharks - home
Sat 29 Mar: v Chiefs - home
Sat 05 Apr: v Hurricanes - away
Fri 11 Apr: v Highlanders - away
Sat 19 Apr: v Waratahs - away
Sat 26 Apr: v Force - away
Sat 03 May: v Cheetahs - home
Sat 10 May: v Stormers - home
Sat 24 May: v Brumbies - home
Sun 01 Jun: v Lions - away
Sat 05 Jul: v Stormers - away
Fri 11 Jul: Rebels - home
By Ross Hastie