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After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.

Super Rugby Preview
Cheetahs, Sharks look good for opening wins - Growden
Greg Growden and Brittany Mitchell
February 12, 2014
The Sharks are considered the best team in South Africa © Getty Images

While Australia and New Zealand continue their lead-up to the campaign, South Africa will open the Super Rugby season with two clashes between the Cheetahs and the Lions, the Sharks and the Bulls. Here's how the opening two games of the season are shaping up.

Saturday, February 15

Greg Growden and Russell Barwick look at the South African conference

Cheetahs v Lions, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein

17:05 local, 15:05 GMT, 02:05 EDT +1d, 01:35 CDT +1d, 23:05 WST

Head to head: Played 10; Cheetahs 5, Lions 5

In Bloemfontein: Played 2; Cheetahs 0, Lions 2

Last clash: Round 7, 2012 - Cheetahs 26 - Lions 5, at North West Stadium, Welkom

Preview: The Lions have returned to Super Rugby with the demotion of the Southern Kings, and they are hungry for the first win of the new season. But don't put your expectations too high. With several little-known players, they are likely to struggle significantly and they face a tough opponent first-up in the Cheetahs.

The Cheetahs enjoyed a huge season in 2013, finishing in the top six to claim their maiden finals berth, and they have returned in 2014 with a similar playing squad. They have enjoyed a successful pre-season with increasingly impressive performances in which they showed a sharp attack and strong defence. Expectations are high in Bloemfontein, and Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske has named a full-strength side.

Greg Growden's verdict: Everyone in South Africa believes the Lions are just making up the numbers, and this should be confirmed when the Cheetahs enjoy a frolicking first-round victory.

Tip: Cheetahs by 14

Sharks v Bulls, Kings Park Stadium, Durban

19:10 local, 17:10 GMT, 04:10 EDT +1d, 03:40 CDT +1d, 01:10 WST +1d

Head to head: Played 22; Sharks 8, Bulls 12, 2 draws

In Durban: Played 10; Sharks 4, Bulls 6

Last clash: Round 19, 2013 - Bulls 20 - Sharks 19, at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria

Preview: The Bulls are the most successful South African Super Rugby franchise, but we think they will struggle after several of their big-name stars left for Europe. In particular, they will find it difficult to replace Morne Steyn, who's boot and direction kept the side afloat through many games over the years. The return of veteran Victor Matfield will raise spirits in the side, but two years away from the game may prove too much for the second-rower - especially first-up. The Bulls lost to the Stormers in their solitary trial, in Polokwane, where they showed up well enough without convincing; they certainly looked like they had plenty to work on in the tight.

The Sharks, meanwhile, believe 2014 is their year with Jake White at the helm having left Australia after coaching a similar Brumbies side to the 2013 decider. They made a slow start to the pre-season with a loss against Saracens in London, but White was happy enough and they subsequently pumped the Lions to the tune of 57 points in Johannesburg. They'll look for a strong display from Pat Lambie and Frans Steyn, and the twin playmakers could prove crucial to their shape and play give White's success with similar players Matt Toomua and Christian Leali'ifano in Canberra.

Greg Growden's verdict: Jake White, who left the Canberra roundabouts for Durban's wild sea life, says this match will be an "eye-opener for South African Rugby". It will be if the Sharks inexplicably lose to the Bulls, who this year lack horns.

Tip: Sharks by 12

Bye: Stormers

The top ESPNfootytips Super Rugby tipster at the end of the home and away season wins $A2000, with the runner-up claiming $A1000. We also have a pair of Gold Class movie tickets for each weekly winner.

Best of all you and a mate could be heading off to Game II of the Bledisloe Cup series between the Wallabies and the All Blacks in Auckland. The prize includes flight, accommodation, transfers and match tickets. Simply enter your tips WEEKLY to make another entry in the competition.

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