Under the old system, South African teams would occupy three of the top four spots on the Super Rugby log after two weeks.
It doesn’t look quite so dramatic seeing three South African teams sitting atop something called the South African Group, but it still represents a very good start by the Stormers, Sharks and Lions, and, with the Bulls also winning, I imagine it made for satisfying viewing for South African fans.
Already in New Zealand we don’t have a single unbeaten team…everyone bar the Hurricanes has a win and a loss, while in Australia only the Brumbies have two wins.
We should start with the Lions, because theirs was a notable win in Hamilton.
Since coming back into the competition after being left out for the Kings in 2013, they have caught the eye with their bold playing style and the heroic work rate of loose forwards Warren Whitely, Jaco Kriel and Warwick Tecklenburg in particular, complemented by the playmaking skills of Elton Jantjies.
All of those traits were brought to bear in their win over the Chiefs, albeit aided by some weak tackling by the home team.
They missed a few of their own too, which allowed the Chiefs back into the game, and there was also a bit of a lottery factor in the refereeing of Australian Andrew Lees, but in the end they got home for a win that had Whiteley and coach Johan Ackerman positively beaming.
They’re a feel-good team, are the Lions, and like the Cheetahs of recent seasons have won plenty of admirers in New Zealand with their positive approach to the game and their genial demeanour.
And they’ve done it largely without any of the rock stars that have tended to gravitate to the likes of the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers, so more power to them.
Ackerman is still relatively new to this level, but you’d think he could be a useful member of the new Springbok coaching team, if one is ever announced!
I can hark back to the days when the old Transvaal was a pillar of the South African game, and was certainly a key component of the great 1995 team. I guess various factors, including those tempestuous later years of the Louis Luyt reign, and underachievement on the field, resulted in them falling from power. But with their Currie Cup triumph, and a couple of good seasons together they look settled and confident.
Now they’ll take on the defending champion Highlanders, whom they have beaten three of the last five times, including in Dunedin back in 2011.
Interestingly, the New Zealand betting agency has cut the odds on the Lions winning Super Rugby from $31 to $16. They’re still outsiders, but already more of a risk for the bookmakers.
New Zealand teams are showing their usual tendency to take time to get up to full speed.
This is partly because a number of All Blacks were given extra time off after the World Cup, and are not on schedule to hit peak for another couple of months, and partly because there are a lot of new combinations.
The Chiefs will be without Brodie Retallick for the next few weeks, which is a huge blow. The big man suffered a rib injury and will miss the Kings game in PE as well as the following week in Buenos Aires.
Talking of which, the Jaguares will leave South Africa with five points from two games, and that’s a good start.
They had a chance to beat the Sharks, but their willingness to keep the ball alive actually got the better of them at times, and resulted in unforced errors. If they can just temper that approach and control their discipline they’ll be a real factor in the title race.
Other worthy performances at the weekend came from the Stormers, Bulls, Crusaders, Highlanders and the team I reckon is the best of the bunch so far, the Brumbies.
The Stormers had to fight hard for their points against the Cheetahs, but are looking odds on to win their conference, the Bulls are not the awesome team of the past, but still comfortably beat an understrength Rebels to get their season up and running, the Crusaders forwards set the platform to beat the Blues, and the Highlanders edged the Hurricanes in a thrilling rematch of last year’s final.
I watched in great anticipation for the Waratahs Brumbies match. Like a lot of hyped up derby games it didn’t quite live up to expectation, and was a fractious affair with a lot of pushing and shoving, but the Brumbies were clearly the better side, more organised and definitely better disciplined.
Under Wallaby coach Michael Cheika, the Waratahs adopted an approach of getting right in the opposition’s face, with a lot of niggly stuff. They have some amazing talent and don’t really need to play like that, and I wonder if it might be starting to come back to haunt them.
Marius van der Westhuizen certainly didn’t let them get away with much, penalising them 13 to 9 and handing out two yellow cards.
But then the SANZAAR judiciary process was made to look silly again. Tolu Latu, who landed an ugly blow on Wallaby Matt Toomua, was supposedly suspended for one week, but won’t miss a Waratahs game because they have a bye and he was apparently going to play club rugby this weekend. Of course he was.
As well, Brumbies centre Tevita Kuridrani was given a “warning” for a high tackle. Will Skelton got one of those the previous week for a cheap shot on Saia Faingaa. It was clearly no deterrent, as Skelton was one of those carded in the Brumbies game.
Might as well slap them on the wrist with a wet bus ticket.
Finally a word on the Las Vegas Sevens.
I note that conspiratorial fingers are already being pointed and attempts being made to prove that referee Frederico Anselmi is an illegitimate son of Paddy O’Brien.
But after playing so well to reach the semifinal, the Blitz Boks lost their composure when it counted most.
The yellow card/penalty against Rosco Specman might have seemed harsh, it was more of a chest bump than a shoulder charge, but there was minimal arm involvement and to the letter of the law it was correct.
Australia deserved their narrow win and would have beaten Fiji in the final but for a disastrous performance by Quade Cooper.
I’m not one of Quade Cooper’s recidivist baggers, but after his teammates had done so well to run up a 15-nil lead, Cooper proceeded to hand it back with a series of mistakes, losing the ball near the line, kicking when a pass was needed, throwing a forward pass when a try was on, missing tackles and lacking the commitment to go down on a loose ball at a crucial moment.
The Fijians under Ben Ryan are an awesome side, even if they do play the bully at times, and it was nice to see them bring some cheer to those Fijian people so hard hit by the devastating Cyclone Winston.