Over the weekend, four South African franchises started their 2014 Super Rugby tournament with two tremendous matches. The challenge has now been set for the other conferences to match the standard of intensity, excitement, aggressive running and tackling.
Generally the opening rounds of a Super Rugby tournament feature play that is pretty ordinary in execution and flair.
But the quality of the Cheetahs 20-Lions 21 and the Sharks 31-Bulls 16 suggested that these teams, at least, have reached the sort of level of performance that is usually shown about a month or so into the tournament.
All the teams were helped by the fact that, finally, SANZAR gave the opening matches to their most experienced referees, Craig Joubert and Jaco Peyper. Their experience and clear instructions to the players and precise rulings (although Peyper could have been stricter on the five-second clearing rule) allowed for free-flowing and entertaining rugby.
The Sharks, coached by Jake White, scored four tries, a couple of them from stunning set move pieces. The emphatic nature of their win and the all round quality and effectiveness of their play must establish as the favourites to win the South African conference.
The White effect was revealed immediately by the fact that he played Patrick Lambie exclusively as a fly-half. In the past the Sharks have tended to play Lambie at fullback, where his playmaking skills and acute rugby brain and darting running were given limited scope to flourish.
The impact of White’s coaching on the Sharks, a team loaded with Springboks over the years but yet to win a Super Rugby title, lends itself to the query about whether the resurgence of the Brumbies last season was due to the White effect.
My guess is that it was. White seemed to have a similar effect on the Brumbies, a team that had been languishing, that Dave Rennie had on the Chiefs. Both coaches instantaneously got great results from their sides.
Now White seems to have worked the same coaching magic with the Sharks.
The question now becomes this: can Stephen Larkham, the new head coach of the Brumbies, build on the strong foundations created by White and take the Brumbies once more to the top of the Australian conference and then on to a Super Rugby grand final victory?
He has, presumably, the structures in place that were created by White. He also has 10 Wallabies; a terrific back row in David Pocock, Scott Fardy and Ben Mowen; and a terrific No.10 in Matt Toomua.
The luck of the draw, too, sees the Brumbies playing the Reds at Canberra in the opening match of the Australian conference.
This home ground advantage should help the Brumbies to start their 2014 campaign with a win. If they don’t win then their chances of repeating their 2013 Super Rugby heroics will be in jeopardy.
The fact of the matter is that Larkham is unproven as a head coach.
Few truly great players (and Larkham was one of the greatest fly-halves in rugby history) have made great rugby coaches. Danie Craven, and this is going back a long time, was one. Fred Allen was another, also going back a long way.
Generally the great rugby coaches come from the ranks of journeyman players (Rod Macqueen and Graham Henry, say) or good players (Carwyn James). Or more often men like Jake White with no playing record to speak of.
The fact of the matter is that playing and coaching are very different jobs. The greatest players have an intuition and a skills and mental set that makes them winners. Becoming a great coach involves an entirely different set of skills.
An interesting example of all of this is Wayne Smith.
He was an excellent All Blacks five-eighths with a vibrant running game. He won a Super Rugby tournament as head coach with the Crusaders and then went to coach the All Blacks, with some limited success.
But under the leadership of Graham Henry in the All Blacks and Dave Rennie with the Chiefs, Smith has flourished as the mentor of young players and the wise old man on the staff who helps the head coach and the team to get the best out of themselves.
It will be interesting to see if Larkham can make this difficult transition from great player to great coach.
My guess is that if he does make the transition it will take him a year or so to do so. By implication this suggests that the Brumbies probably won’t be as good this year as they were last year.
We shall see.
Their first up opponents, the Reds, also have a new had coach, Richard Graham. Let’s be frank here. Graham was less than successful as head coach at the Western Force. The board of the QRU who appointed him have never really satisfactorily explained just why he got the job.
The team that Graham inherits from Ewen McKenzie, moreover, was nowhere near as potent in its last two years than it was in 2011 when the Reds won the Super Rugby for the first time.
The Reds had an excellent pre-season victory, 31-20 over the Chiefs in Toowoomba, and then went down to the Rebels 18 – 13 in their final trial.
Quade Cooper was stretchered from the field during the match. The effect of any absence on the part of Cooper from the Reds lineup could be very damaging. Ever since Ewen McKenzie came in as the Reds’ coach, their game has centered around the sometimes freakish talents of Cooper.
The Reds rely on him more than most of the other teams rely on a key player.
Another new head coach, Tony McGahan, has had an impressive pre-season with the Melbourne Rebels. They have won all their pre-tournament hit-outs, which is a first for a team that does not have a habit of winning.
McGahan is highly rated as a coach and it is interesting that the Rebels, for the first time, have rejected the notion of enticing celebrity players to the franchise. The squad is now a hard-nosed, no-nonsense set of players with a bit of a chip on their shoulder and a point to prove to both their supporters and the rest of the rugby public in Australia.
Can McGahan do for the Rebels what White did for the Brumbies? My guess is that the Rebels will be one of the stronger Australian sides in this year’s tournament.
I received a bit of a serve from my old mate Wayne Smith in The Australian for writing up the chances of the Waratahs (“ritual predictions”) as the “real deal” in 2014.
Wayne is a diehard Reds supporter. I first came across him when he and several other rugby writers from Queensland performed like banshees in the media room during a NSW v Queensland game some decades ago. They yelled on their team in a display that frankly amazed and appalled the local reporters present.
Well, the job of the rugby writer is to tell it as he sees it, in print, rather than to all and sundry in the media room. I was impressed with the way the Waratahs monstered the Blues. And I wrote up my story in The Roar saying this.
Admittedly it was a pre-season match and the Blues had left several of their All Blacks back in Auckland. Also Benji Marshall was struggling to make any sense of the way a rugby No.10 is supposed to play during this trial.
Moreover, the Blues are unlikely to threaten the Crusaders or the Chiefs as the strongest team in the NZ Conference.
But the Waratahs are fit. This has been a missing factor for years. They are playing with verve and mongrel. The dreadful ‘attacking/kicking’ game has been booted to the junkyard of rugby history.
The team is loaded with Wallabies. The coach, Michael Cheika, has an excellent record as a head coach. There is strength in every position, along with two X-factor players in Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale, and a palpable hunger from the senior players for some success to match the expectations of their long-suffering supporters.
So my first Fearless Prediction of the season is that the Waratahs will win the Australian Conference, and with this achievement place themselves in a great position to win their first Super Rugby title. (But no predictions about this, yet!)