The Bulls, Cheetahs, Lions, Sharks and Stormers will be pressing South Africaâ00s claims for Super 14 domination, with the major Currie Cup sides from four of those franchises taking on Ian McGeechanâ00s tourists in less than four months time.
The Springboks have waited 12 years to try and avenge their 1997 series defeat to the Lions and head coach Peter de Villiers has readily admitted that his country is already focusing heavily on the forthcoming tour. De Villiers sees the Super 14 as the perfect platform for his players to impress and the former Bok Under-21 coach is expecting big things from the countryâ00s top performers.
Springbok skipper John Smit and world-class second row Victor Matfield are among the stars to have returned from spells in European rugby, with both players sighting the Lions as one of the major reasons behind the decision to come home. Their presence at the Sharks and Bulls respectively should enhance both sideâ00s prospects of improving on their third and 10th place finishes from 2008, while the Stormers will also fancy their chances of turning last yearâ00s fifth place into a semi-final slot this time around.
As well as providing the more experienced international players with top-quality, high-intensity rugby prior to the Lionsâ00 arrival, the Super 14 will give numerous young or fringe players the chance to persuade de Villiers that they should be included in his squad for the first Test against the Lions on June 20.
De Villiers knows that the make up of his squad will be key if the Boks are to send the Lions home empty handed in July of this year and the Super 14 is the next step on the road to ensuring that selection is spot on.
"The national selectors and I will be keeping a close watch on the performances of our teams and, in particular, those of the individual players who will form the nucleus of our squad to face the Lions,â0 said de Villiers, who led the Springboks to victories over Wales, Scotland and England on their November tour of the UK.
"As usual, we expect the competition to provide a platform for players on the fringes of Springbok selection to stake their claims.
"This is an exceptional year for our rugby and we hope to match it with exceptional on-field performances.
"A tough four months lies ahead and I would like to wish the five South African teams a successful and rewarding Vodacom Super 14 campaign.â0
Those sentiments were echoed by South African Rugbyâ00s acting managing director Andy Marinos, who believes the whole of the republic is looking ahead to the coming months with a great deal of anticipation and excitement.
"All the squads have some promising and exciting youngsters, while there is also a welcome return to Super rugby action for a number of very experienced players who for various reasons did not feature in the 2008 competition,â0 said the former Wales and Newport centre.
â00The squads are all very balanced and we are looking forward to another exciting Vodacom Super 14 competition.â0
The Super 14 kicks off this Friday, February 13, with a South African head-to-head forming part of a three-match schedule.
The Lions take on the Cheetahs in Johannesburg before the Highlanders face the Brumbies and the Blues travel to the Western Force on the opening day of the new season.
The following day sees the remaining four matches take place, with the Stormers versus the Sharks in Cape Town expected to be a major talking point as far as South Africans are concerned.
The fifth and final South African franchise, the Bulls, host the Reds in Pretoria, while the Crusaders welcome the Chiefs to Christchurch and the Warratahs make the journey to Wellington to meet the Hurricanes.
The regular Super 14 season comes to an end on Saturday, May 15, with the semi-finals taking place on a week later and the final being held on May 30 â00 the day McGeechanâ00s Lions begin their 10-match tour against a Highveld XV in Royal Bafokeng.
To check out all five South African Super 14 squads and see who is in with a chance of lining up against the Lions next summer, click here
(Follow the link to the Super 14 homepage, navigate across the league table and click on the team of your choice. Then simply click on â002009 squadâ00 for a full list of players.)