AUCKLAND, NZ – …and they’re off! Super Rugby returned to the southern hemisphere over the weekend with a mixture of good games, bad games, a poke in the eye to the theory of home ground advantage and some more fuel to the fire that is the concussion debate. I’ve added in a new feature to the review system this season because so many people who read this column don’t have live access to Super Rugby games. I’ll let you know (in my humble opinion, of course) whether it’s worth getting hold of a replay or not, which hopefully can either let you enjoy what this competition has to offer or not waste time better spent going nuts on Tinder.
I foretold that I may be having to make a few apologies for my picks in the preview and I didn’t have to wait long to start drafting one up to Rebels fans as they pulled off a shock win in Christchurch.
At AMI Stadium, Christchurch: Rebels 20 (Lopeti Timani, Nic Stirzaker tries, Mike Harris 2 con, 2 pen) Crusaders 10 (Ben Funnell try, Dan Carter con, pen)
The lowly Rebels gave last year’s finalists a supreme shock by controlling possession and territory early, simply stringing together an impressive series of one-off runners and pick and go’s for Lopeti Timani to dive over and score Super Rugby’s first try of the year. That seemed to have woke to the Crusaders up, an easy attempt at goal was turned down for a lineout that was effectively driven by their pack for Ben Funnell to score. So that’s when the home team put the hammer down and played out an easy win after a shaky start, right? Not quite. The Rebels were the ones to maintain their composure, despite losing halfback Nic Stirzaker to the bin for stomping on Richie McCaw, an act that if Canterbury locals had their way would be punishable by summary execution. To add to their woes, Crusaders first five Dan Carter hobbled off with a leg injury while Mike Harris kept extending the Rebels lead with some impressive goal kicking. Stirzaker redeemed himself by dashing half the length of the field to score a try and the Rebels held on to record a highly unlikely win. Man of the match: Rebels fullback Mike Harris was the difference-maker with his accurate boot. The Kiwi-turned-Wallaby sent out a strong message to the Aussie selectors to not forget him when the World Cup rolls around. Replay-worthy? Not really, unless you like watching ref Nick Briant blow his whistle. Despite the Rebels heroics, this was a pretty tough watch.
At GIO Stadium, Canberra: Brumbies 47 (Robbie Coleman, Joe Tomane, Matt Toomua, Nic White, Tevita Kuridrani, James Dargaville tries, Christian Lealiifano 3 pen, 4 con) Reds 3 (Karmichael Hunt pen)
If the Rebels inside half combination thought they were the going to be the toast of the Australian Conference, sadly that accolade only lasted 80 minutes as Nic White and Matt Toomua put on a masterclass at the expense of the hapless Reds. It was all the Brumbies from start to finish as they exploited a visiting team that looked like they’d just been introduced to one another five minutes before kick-off. Robbie Coleman and Joe Tomane were sent over for easy first half tries after slick work from the afore-mentioned halves, then in the second firstly Toomua crashed over himself before White scooted through after a clever grubber kick. The bullying continued with two more well-constructed tries to round things off just short of the half-century mark. The Reds will be ruing their incredibly poor communication on defense that saw the Brumbies cut through them with ease, plus their inability to do anything with the pathetic amount of possession they had. Also, they weren’t helped by the sending off of lock James Horwill after two professional fouls, a guy with his resume of experience really should know better. Man of the match: Matt Toomua put Karmichael Hunt in his place, teaching the code-swapper a lesson in how to play first five. Replay-worthy? If you’re a Brumbies fan or neutral, definitely. If you’re a Reds fan, this one should probably be locked away in a vault till the end of time.
At Ellis Park, Johannesburg: Hurricanes 22 (TJ Perenara, Matt Proctor tries, Beauden Barrett 4 pen) Lions 8 (Ruan Combrinck try, Marnitz Boshoff pen)
Notorious slow-starters the Hurricanes shook off that tag against the Lions in a tough win at Ellis Park. However, Canes fullback Jason Woodward didn’t quite get the start he wanted to in his debut game, when he was steamrolled by Ruan Combrinck for the opening try. Woodward made up for that not long after by making an outside break down the right wing to set up a try to TJ Perenara, throwing a final pass that could be described as ‘suspect’ at best. It again raised the bizarre bureaucracy of the TMO, who had to have far too many looks at it than was really necessary. From there the Canes controlled the game between the 22 metre lines and attacking opportunities were few and far between for both sides. Beauden Barrett kicked them into an unassailable lead and, in a very promising sign for the season ahead, their scrum containing all their replacement forwards shoved the Lions off their own feed. Some quick thinking by Perenara saw the ball shifted quickly for Matt Proctor to walk over untouched for a try right on full-time. Man of the match: TJ Perenara controlled the game beautifully from halfback with quality kicking and passing, plus chimed in for an important try. Also, he did this the other day, which is awesome. Replay-worthy? Well, not really. Good, tough wins don’t always translate into great viewing and this was definitely an example of that.
At QBE Stadium, Albany: Chiefs 23 (James Lowe, Bryce Heem tries, Damian McKenzie 3 pen, 2 con), Blues 18 (Ihaia West 6 pen)
In easily the best performance by an NZ side in opening weekend, the Chiefs crushed the life out of the Blues in a performance that was a bit more convincing than the final scoreline suggests. Despite missing a clutch of key players, the visitors came out of the blocks strongly and signaled their intention to get Sonny Bill Williams involved as often as possible. This paid dividends when he set up a flying James Lowe down the left hand side, the winger’s finish impressive despite some awful tackling by the Blues back three. SBW was in the action shortly after, collecting a bomb cleanly and feeding right wing Bryce Heem to gallop over for the Chiefs second. His dominance was in no small part due to the masterful display at first five by Damian McKenzie, playing his debut game for the Chiefs but looking like he’d been there his whole life. MacKenzie’s distribution and running game set up a glut of possession for the visitors and all the Blues could answer with were long range penalty shots by Ihaia West. It took until deep into the second half for the Blues to really have a crack at the Chiefs line, but this was snuffed out quickly by highly effective defense. The Chiefs weren’t perfect, though, if they’d held on to some of their final passes the would have got the scoreline they deserved, but this is an encouraging sign for a team who will be gunning to retain the title they won two years in a row. Man of the match: Damian McKenzie, despite looking like a guy who rides racehorses for a living, was immense. If this is what he can do in his first start of Super Rugby then every first five in the NZ conference should start looking over their shoulder. Replay-worthy? Yes, because you can see the difference between a team that has focused on ball-handling and cohesion in the off-season and one that simply did fitness training.
At King’s Park, Durban: Cheetahs 35 (Jean Cook, Boom Prinsloo, Francois Venter, Carl Wegner tries, Joe Pietersen 3 pen, 2 con, Willie du Plessis con) Sharks 29 (Patrick Lambie, Lwazi Mvovo tries, Lambie 2 con, 5 pen)
Along with the apology to Rebels fans there’s one should go to the Cheetahs. The team known for bringing an enterprising game out of the South African conference did just that, running the conservative Sharks off their own field in a massive bonus point win upset. Not only that, but they relied on their previously woeful defense to close out the win, repulsing a ferocious attempt by the home side to avoid embarrassment. Earlier though, the win was set up through forwards Jean Cook, Boom Prinsloo and centre Francois Venter, although the entire pack set up quick ball for new first five Joe Pietersen to distribute to a free-flowing backine. If Cheetahs fans could scarcely believe they were up 20-16 at the break they would’ve been positively floored when that lead was extended out to 19 points at one stage, however to their credit the Sharks fought back. Pat Lambie’s goal-kicking edged back the lead before Lwazi Mvovo crossed to cut the deficit to 6. The last 10 minutes were a constant assault on the visitor’s line, with one of the last acts being a try ruled out by the TMO to flanker Marcel Coetzee. The Cheetahs will be jubilant with this win at the Shark Tank, however there’s still a long way to go to match the heroics of their break-out 2013 season. Man of the match: Danie Minnie, the Cheetahs loosehead prop, might seem an odd choice for such a high-scoring game. But it was his tireless work at scrum time that frustrated his veteran opposite Jannie du Plessis to concede some crucial penalties. Replay-worthy? Absolutely. High scoring, frantic finish and an underdog triumphing. What more could you ask for?
At Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria: Stormers 29 (Dillyn Leyds, Duane Vermeulen tries, Demetri Catrakilis 2 con, 3 pen, Kurt Coleman pen, dg) Bulls 17 (Deon Stegmann try, Handre Pollard 4 pen)
Another upset to close out the South African conference’s involvement in round one saw the unfancied Stormers take down the Bulls on their home ground. While not quite as entertaining as the Cheetahs, the Stormers nonetheless got the job done, mainly through smashing the Bulls pack in the mouth and taking advantage of a glut of possession. First five Demetri Catrakilis shook off the jitters that saw him spend a good portion of last season sitting on the bench with an assured kicking display that shot the visitors out to the lead after the Bulls had crossed in the opening minutes through flanker Deon Stegmann. After that it was all control by the men from Cape Town, who pounced on a muffed bomb by Jurgen Visser which was turned into a try to Dillyn Leyds. Springbok player of the year in 2014 Duane Vermuelen then showed why he won that accolade with a beautiful run through the Bulls backline to score the Stormers second. The second half turned drab pretty quickly, with both teams resorting to try and kick their way to a result. Unfortunately for the Bulls, that tactic only really works for a team that’s actually winning, so perhaps they ought to rethink that one next time they’re down by 12 points. Man of the match: Duane Vermuelen had another big game to his impressive collection last year. If the Stormers can get this on weekly basis from the big man then they may yet answer their many critics in 2015. Replay worthy? Yes, but this one is more for the purists.
Force 25 (Chris Alcock, Angus Cottrell, Luke Morahan, Francois van Wyk tries, Sias Ebersohn pen, con) Waratahs 15 (Rob Horne 2 tries, Bernard Foley pen, con)
The Tahs hardly looked like last years champs in the first half of this repeat of last year’s season opener for both teams. Instead of the free-running spectacle that saw Israel Folau score a hat trick in 2014, this was a very stop-start 40 minutes, full of aimless kicking and infringements. While the Force’s lineout fell apart like the narrative structure of the 50 Shades Of Grey screenplay under close scrutiny, they still managed to muster up enough possession to score the opening try to Chris Alcock after a well-constructed drive. Things went from bad to very, very worse in the second as firstly flanker Angus Cottrell crashed over from close range to extend the Force’s lead before Rob Horne answered back with a very debatable try in the corner. If Tahs fans thought the comeback was on then they were sadly mistaken as the Force went from strength to strength, Luke Morahan crossing after a nice kick from Alby Mathewson. Then, the ultimate ignominy as Kurtley Beale gave up the match-sealing try in hilarious fashion to replacement prop Francois van Wyk, who plucked Beale’s chip kick out of the air and ran untouched to score. The only sore point for the Force would be the shocker Sias Ebersohn had with the boot, their margin of victory should’ve been far greater. The Tahs will be dumbfounded at how poor they were, the only consolation is that the team they beat in last year’s final wasn’t much better. Man of the match: Force lock Sam Wykes got thrown the captaincy after an injury has ruled out Matt Hodgson for the start of the season and he carried the responsibility well by fixing their lineout woes and making the right calls. Replay worthy? Maybe not the first half, but the second saw fine play by the Force.
If you hadn’t noticed, only one team managed to take a victory from their home game and they were from the sometimes maligned Australian Conference, so well done to the Brumbies. Time for the first weekly awards of the year, including the always popular Idiot Of The Week:
Try of the week: Hard to go past flying wing James Lowe’s effort for the Chiefs in the opening stages of their win against the Blues:
Performance of the week: Tough to choose between the Brumbies demolition of the Reds or the Cheetahs high-scoring win over the Sharks, but the men from Bloemfontein get the nod because no one saw that coming.
Idiot of the week: Given the hysteria following the situation with George North being allowed to carry on for Wales last week and subsequent high-profile stand down this weekend, you’d think that rugby medic teams the world over would have their eye firmly on any concussions. Well, news must travel pretty slowly to Johannesburg where Marntiz Boshoff was clearly knocked into la-la-land in their game against the Hurricanes and was allowed to continue playing. Perhaps they thought it would’ve knocked some rhythm into his normally dependable boot, he’d missed three shots at goal already.
Round one of Super Rugby is in the books, folks. Settle in for a long season!
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Jamie Wall, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.