Not what the Wallabies wanted
It’s that time of the year again. Like Bolt in Berlin, Super Rugby came flying back onto our TV screens on Friday, marking the end of that horrible, retched period where our weekend nights are not bedazzled with the captivating displays of power, pace and precision.
Round 1 has come and gone, and what a round it was. Upsets aplenty as this writer was left scratching his head at how his Super Rugby picks could go all so horribly wrong after only seven games.
But, my deflated ego aside, the golden period is upon us, and in a World Cup year, the Super Rugby competition holds such enormous importance for those players who yearn for their names to be penciled onto Steve Hansen, Michael Cheika and Heyneke Meyer’s notepads, for a shot at glory at the spiritual home of rugby up north.
So, without further digression, let us review the weekend’s events.
Crusaders versus Rebels
Some things never change in Super Rugby, and my beloved Crusaders’ poor starts is now a surety from year to year. 2011 was the last time they won their opening game, and one must wonder if that little hoodoo has begun to play on their minds with the inception of each new year.
Dan Carter and Richie McCaw could not inspire this rabble attempting to imitate the Crusaders, as a surprisingly strong Melbourne side were dominant throughout, defending and attacking with earnest that the Christchurch crew just couldn’t halt.
The Rebels have recruited well in the off-season, and running off the back of a flawless pre-season run they deservedly claimed their first overseas game, and being the first Australian side to knock over the Crusaders in their own backyard since 2004. With more yellow flags than the Superbowl, the Rebels showed they may in fact be a force in 2015, and the only was is up for the Melbournians.
As for the Crusaders, maybe it’s time for the management to have a serious thought about hiring a psychologist, because these starts are fast becoming commonplace, something which may be becoming a mental issue. Gilbert Enoka has worked wonders with the All Blacks; give him a buzz Toddy.
Brumbies versus Reds
The less said about the bumbling Queensland side the better, but one cannot start a review of this game without at least warranting mention of a certain ex-league star’s debut. Karmichael hunt received a hearty, Super Rugby welcome from Matt Toomua’s right shoulder, and was generally given a masterclass from the man who resumes his campaign for the Wallabies’ number 10 jumper.
The Brumbies as a whole, however, looked a gelled unit, led admirably by David Pocock in his return game from his umpteenth leg injury. Scott Sio was an inspiration, and Robbie Coleman not bad either as they swept out to their biggest ever win over the Reds. They were also the only home team to claim a win this round, something which only the bravest of pundits would have predicted.
Their set piece was super, and their backs sublime, signalling that this could indeed be a big year for Stephen Larkham’s men. As for the Reds, only time will tell if the addition of Adam Thomson and James O’Connor will galvanise a side which failed to inspire on Friday.
Hurricanes versus Lions
Paging doctor Barrett, doctor Beauden Barrett. Your chariot awaits you in the form of an outstanding forward effort, which starved of possession, managed to deliver the goods, letting perhaps the competition’s most dangerous backline loose upon their Lion counterparts.
With the howeward bound Ma’a Nonu still to return, consistency is again the key for the Wellingtonians, and on the basis of this performance the bar has been set admirably high. Running the cutter as if he’d never left, Barrett was superb, and when your fly half is superb, you can bet the backline isn’t far behind. A 14-point win doesn’t reflect the gap between these two sides, and in this day and age, any win in South Africa is something to cherish.
It’s full speed ahead for new coach Chris Boyd, whose dream start may invigorate a degree of optimism in the capital. And who knows, it may for once be well placed. Only time will tell. The Lions? Afraid the Cats may have been a more fitting title, possession simply must lead to points, and offence was a huge issue. The Canes’ backrow was superb, but some soul searching is needed, or else another cellar dwelling year could lie in wait.
Chiefs versus Blues
Mark my words, James Lowe will be an All Black in two years, and if not for the World Cup calling for experience over flair, this could have been his year. My 2014 ITM Cup top winger, I simply cannot speak highly enough of this guy. Keep an eye on him.
In other news, Sonny Bill Williams resumed his dominance of opposition backlines, and the Blues, with their makeshift centre pairing that must surely cause a few eyebrows to be raised at the selector’s panel, simply could not contain them. Damien McKenzie showed Aaron Cruden is not the only viable 10 this side of the north island, and Siate Tokolahi had a debut to remember up against All Blacks veteran Tony Woodcock.
Although the Blues reigned the Chiefs in after an electric start that resulted in two early tries to wingers Bryce Heem and golden boy Lowe, they simply never looked like really taking control. A largely predictable result given the form of the two sides over the last few years.
The Chiefs probably have the best depth in Super Rugby, and with an uncanny ability to bring out the best in their young players more than any other side, a third title looks a real chance. The Blues recruited poorly in the off-season, and a lack of midfield punch combined with a questionable halves combination may see them miss the mark again in 2015, Eden Park winning record aside.
Cheetahs versus Sharks
Dear oh dear, Marcell Coetzee won’t forgive himself in a hurry for that costly slip. Probably the most exciting game of the round, both teams looked relatively well drilled with only minor signs of early season rust. The Cheetahs lived up to their bill as the most entertaining team from the Rainbow nation, with a bonus-point victory that showed not only can they foot it with the best, but that games on the road do not appear to sully their creativity.
It amazes me how Sarel Pretorius is barely ever considered for the Springboks, as he thoroughly outshone his Test capped counterpart in Cobus Reinach, giving the canny Joe Pietersen the ball needed to unleash the Cheetahs’ thrilling outside backs. Coenie Oosthuizen was outstanding, and the team did well to cope with the early loss of recently capped lock Lodewyk De Jager.
As for the Sharkies, cheerleaders aside, the Durban representatives weren’t where they should have been in terms of energy and razzle dazzle. Although they certainly weren’t the worst of the home sides over the weekend, new coach Gary Gold will expect more from his men if they wish to improve from their semi-final finish last season. Perhaps they can pull off the job with the skill of Pat Lambie to lead them around the park, perhaps they will struggle to cope with the loss of Jake White. This Sharks team has a few more surprises left in their tank.
Stormers versus Bulls
Truth be told, I was on a flight when this game went live so unfortunately I was unable to catch the excitement. But details aside, knocking over a Bulls side in Pretoria is a colossal achievement, and one that bodes well for the season ahead. The Bulls need to shake off the embarrassment and move forward, and with the canny Handre Pollard leading them round the paddock, they have the personnel to press for a fourth title. Was this only an anomaly for the Cape Town crew? We shall see.
Waratahs versus Force
So there it is everybody. The two most diabolical sides of the weekend, in regard to their expectations, were the two finalists from last year. My first query in regards to this game is what were Dave Dennis and Jacques Potgieter doing wearing each other’s jerseys? An unnecessary change that was never going to yield any substantial gain.
Say what you will about tactics, mistakes and the like, but the bottom line is that the Waratahs were simply out enthused by a Force side which, like their fellow countrymen the Rebels, showed their name and wooden spoon should not be uttered in the same sentence. Kyle Godwin just continues to grow as a player, and despite a wonky scrum, the men from the west coast took the chances on offer, which against a side who were undefeated at this ground last season is all one can ask.
The Waratahs never really got out of second gear, and poor decision making cost them on more than one occasion. Back-to-back titles are won on consistency, and this was not the way they would have wished to open the season for the current champs. As the Force, they tackled low and hard, fought like demons at the breakdowns and did the basics well, something so often overlooked in modern rugby.
Yet another win for the visitors, and yet another case of the early season blues for those teams who finished top of the log last season. Will they all hit back with the class we know they have? Or are these upsets only a taste of things to come? All will be revealed.