The 2008 Vodacom Super 14 gets underway this weekend with several mouth-watering clashes in store during the opening round of matches.
Locally, the highlight is undoubtedly the clash between the reigning champions, the Vodacom Bulls, and arch-rivals Vodacom Stormers on Saturday (17h00) at Newlands in Cape Town.
Another SA derby clash sees 2007 Absa Currie Cup finalists, the Vodacom Cheetahs and the Lions, do battle in Bloemfontein at 15h00 on Saturday.
The Sharks, Vodacom Super 14 finalists of 2007, start their campaign against the Western Force of Australia. Kick-off time at the Absa Stadium in Durban is 19h10 on Friday.
The Newlands clash could turn out to be another classic, with both sides having undergone squad changes during the off-season and sporting new coaching personnel.
Whilst the Vodacom Bulls have dominated the more recent clashes between the two, it is however the home side that has held sway in their last 10 meetings in the tournament. The Vodacom Stormers have won six of the previous 10 since 1998 with one match being drawn and the Vodacom Bulls winning the last three.
However, it is the manner of these last three defeats that poses the biggest psychological obstacle for the Cape Town team, who will be looking for their first win over the Pretoria-based franchise since 2004.
In all three of their previous meetings, the Vodacom Bulls scored 40 points or more, including a painful 75-14 defeat in 2005 at Loftus. As defending champions, the Vodacom Bulls will start as favourites, but there is renewed optimism amongst the Vodacom Stormers faithful that this may be their season to come good.
Last 10 meetings: Vodacom Stormers vs. Vodacom Bulls
Vodacom Stormers: have won 6
Vodacom Bulls: have won 3
1998 Stormers 35 Bulls 18 in Cape Town
1999 Stormers 42 Bulls 19 in Pretoria
2000 Stormers 19 Bulls 19 in Cape Town
2001 Stormers 34 Bulls 23 in Pretoria
2002 Stormers 31 Bulls 27 in Cape Town
2003 Stormers 27 Bulls 24 in Pretoria
2004 Stormers 25 Bulls 11 in Cape Town
2005 Bulls 75 Stormers 14 in Pretoria
2006 Bulls 43 Stormers 10 in Cape Town
2007 Bulls 49 Stormers 12 in Pretoria
As two of the newer kids on the Vodacom Super 14 block, the Vodacom Cheetahs and the Lions have little history between them at this level. However, their traditional provincial rivalry is enough for this clash to be tight and very physical. Last year, the Vodacom Cheetahs won 16-10 in Johannesburg and in 2006 they won 28-23 against the Cats (before they became Lions) in Bloemfontein.
Likewise, the Sharks and the Western Force will meet in only their third encounter. Each has won a match, the Force winning 22-12 in Perth last year and Sharks 41-25 in 2006 in Durban.
The pick of the overseas fixtures will be the clashes between the Crusaders and the Brumbies and the Blues and the Chiefs – all top six finishers in 2007. The Crusaders and Brumbies meet in the season opener in Christchurch on Friday (08h35 SA time), whilst the Blues and Chiefs clash in Auckland on Saturday (08h35).
The first matches in Australia feature the Reds against the Highlanders in Brisbane on Friday (11h05) and the NSW Waratahs against the Hurricanes in Sydney on Saturday (10h40).