Lions coach Swys de Bruin has tipped the Vodacom Bulls, the only South African team not in action on opening weekend, as the one to watch in 2018.
De Bruin faces high expectations in his first season at the helm of the Lions, who reached consecutive finals under Johan Ackermann in 2016 and 2017. First up for the South African Conference champions is a crunch derby with the Sharks, and De Bruin has attempted to release some of the building pressure by swinging the spotlight on the Bulls.
“The side that everyone is watching is definitely the Bulls under John Mitchell,” the 57-year-old told Sport24. “If you look at his track record, he’s always done well in his first year.”
Under Nollis Marais, the 2017 Bulls won just four of 15 matches, conceding an average of four tries per match. Mitchell’s arrival coincided with Marais being reassigned and what remains of the Loftus faithful are hopeful that the change will signal a return to the heights of the glory days, when the Bulls won three Super Rugby titles between 2007 and 2010.
Mitchell’s men make a late start to the competition, starting the season on a bye before hosting the Hurricanes in Round 2. But the former All Blacks and Lions coach has attempted to get the team combat fit with preseason matches against the Stormers and Jaguares.
Those two teams will be in action at Newlands in the season-opener and De Bruin expects the Stormers to make a run at the knockout stages again this season.
“The Stormers always make the play-offs,” he said. “They are a solid, good unit. They are sort of island-based, alone out there in the Cape. They’re a very good franchise and they’ve got a very good history. They’ve got a fantastic director of rugby in Gert Smal and they will definitely be a factor.”
Super Rugby, Round One fixtures: Saturday, February 17
Stormers v Jaguares, Newlands (kickoff: 15h05)
Lions v Sharks, Ellis Park (17h15)