Round eight will long be remembered through some eyes (including my own) as the round of realisation. The realisation that Super Rugby isn’t just a two, three or four horse race anymore. This tournament is often spoken about as the toughest provincial rugby competition on the planet and for the most part, on any given day the bottom ranked teams can really throw a spanner in the works of the title-favourites as was the case with the Kings spectacular draw with the Brumbies in Canberra. I have no doubts that round eight will have yielded the worst successful picks of any round as far as I can remember. The playing field has well and truly been levelled and this can only be positive for the growth of the competition moving forwards. Let’s have a look at the round in more detail to see how things eventuated.
The first of six matches last weekend kicked off in Auckland as Eden Park welcomed the winless Highlanders to town in front of a healthy crowd. Both teams are renowned for their attacking intent and given the quality of some of the players on both sides, it had all the makings of being a classic, free-flowing New Zealand derby. The Highlanders got off to a great start running out to a lead of 10 – 0 and looked like the team of old, however, a utterly stupid shoulder charge from Ma’a Nonu on former teammate Piri Weepu saw the referee go to his pocket and sent him to the bin for ten minutes. This was the momentum shift that the Blues required and they stormed back with 13 points of their own to take a half time lead. The Highlanders scrum was dominant, however as the match wore on, both teams began to commit an unentertaining amount of handling errors which really effected either team from gaining ascendency territorial wise or in terms of possession. No doubt to Ma’a Nonu’s dismay, Piri Weepu scored a brace of tries in the second half to put the nail in the coffin, despite the Highlanders being heavily camped down in the Blues red zone in the final quarter. The last ten minutes really summed up the Highlanders season to date, as they threatened the line on many occasions, before a few brain explosions cost them a bonus point. Both teams needed the win for similar reasons and the Blues will have gained a lot of confidence out of the match, but the utterly disappointing Highlanders remain winless since round 14 of 2012 and remain deeply rooted at the bottom of the table.
The second match of Friday evening saw the table topping Brumbies host the brave Kings at an expectant Canberra stadium. Heading into the match, the Brumbies were granted the shortest odds ($1.01) an Australian team has ever received in this competition and complacency didn’t seem to be an issue as they hurried out to a 13 – 0 lead. Suddenly, the Kings turned things around and defended like men possessed for the remainder of the match, kicking penalty goals at will and achieving ‘easy’ metres both in the tight and lose. The score was near level heading into the final twenty minutes and both teams looked gun shy as the Brumbies were on the verge of being a part of the biggest upset in the history of Super Rugby and the Kings looked anything but a team playing in their first year of the competition. The Brumbies pulled away late with two penalty goals off the boat of the accurate Christian Lealifano, however, the Kings managed to fight back and kept up their amazing record of scoring last through number eight Cornell du Preez. Demetri Catrakilis added the conversion to silence the Brumbies faithful, as their team had just surrendered a winnable game and top position on the Super Rugby table. The Brumbies were outscored by four tries to two, something only two other South African sides have managed to do since 1996. The Brumbies have been misfiring in recent weeks and given the Reds resurgence, this could well be one of those games that they look back on as one that cost them dearly.
The third match of the weekend was poised to be the match of the round and although it didn’t deliver the free-flowing rugby that we would’ve loved to see, both teams defended with ferocity. Despite there being only one try in the match, courtesy of ex-All Blacks halfback Andy Ellis, both teams had their opportunities, however, Pat Lambie of the Sharks punished the Crusaders inaccuracy and ill-discipline on seven occasions with the boot. Patrick Lambie is a player that is quickly establishing himself to wear the fly half jersey for the Springboks this year (injuries permitting) as he possesses an important skill that cannot be taught – big match temperament (BMT). The Crusaders were leading 11 – 9 at the break, however, the Sharks stormed back in the second half and the Crusaders began to feel the pinch as a result of an injury-depleted squad and a rigorous South African tour. The Sharks avoided their seventh consecutive defeat to the Crusaders and chalked up only their third win in seventeen attempts against the seven-time champions. The Sharks remain at the top of the South African conference and head to Cape Town this week to play the Stormers, whilst the Crusaders will make a pit stop in Perth to play the struggling Force.
Saturday’s Super Rugby account was opened as the entertaining Hurricanes welcomed a rebuilding Waratahs to town in a game that combined a mix of penalty goals, exceptional tries and tit-for-tat scoring. Youngster and debutant Ardie Savea announced himself on this stage early in the match with some great running coupled with some intimidating defensive work. His brother and blockbusting All Black’s winger Julian Savea would certainly feature in a world fifteen if it was picked and could’ve picked up a hat trick of tries if it wasn’t for a bad bounce of the ball. To the Waratahs credit, they never threw in the white towel and two late tries to Adam Ashley-Cooper and rugby league recruit Israel Folau got them within a whisker of two bonus points, however, as Waratahs fans have come accustomed to in recent years – it was a case of too little, too late. The Waratahs away form is nothing short of pathetic having lost eleven matches in a row with sixth of them coming in New Zealand. The bye probably couldn’t come at a better time for them and coach Michael Cheika has all but conceded that the playoffs are out of reach for his squad in 2013. Things have been much brighter for the Wellington based franchise having gone undefeated since the first of March, despite a few of their stars players not being available for all their fixtures.
After a disastrous South African tour both on and off the field, the Rebels had a layover in Perth on route to Melbourne where they faced an inconsistent Western Force outfit. This match had all the ingredients of being a dull, lifeless encounter, however it was anything but. The Rebels hit the ground running and raced out to a 15 – 0 inside the first quarter and were playing the type of rugby we expected of them all season. Both teams adopted an exciting brand and were rewarded on the scoreboard as the Force picked up three tries, before man of the match Jason Woodward bagged his second try and in the process gained a four-try bonus point for the Rebels. Ironically, the match finished the same result and same score as their round one encounter in Melbourne. The Rebels needed this result and will face a rejuvenated Kings side in Melbourne this weekend, where the Force will be up against it over perennial super powers the Crusaders in Perth. They will be looking for a big game from Alfi Mafi who continues to be one of the Force’s best players.
The final match of the weekend saw one of the tournament’s form teams, the Cheetahs matched up against the struggling Stormers. The match started at a frantic pace with both teams willing to give the ball some air and this was rewarded when winger Willie le Roux and promising Piet van Zyl led the attack before Robert Ebersohn went over in the corner at the 20 minute mark. If Ebersohn continues this exceptional early season form, he will no doubt feature in the Springbok jersey for the first time at some stage this year. The Stormers hit back soon after with the lively Deon Fourie making a clean line break to set up Juan de Jong for his first try of the night. Shortly thereafter, de Jong scored again stretching the Stormers lead to eight points at the halftime break. The Cheetahs needed to score first in the second half to stifle the Stormers momentum and did so when Sarel Pretorius charged down a box kick to dot down in the corner. The last twenty minutes wasn’t a pretty spectacle in which both teams attempted to play field possession and employ the tactic of aerial bombardment too often without much success. The Cheetahs ended up snatching an extra time victory over the Stormers courtesy of a penalty off the boot of former Stormers fly half and eventual man of the match Burton Francis, who finished with a match tally of 16 points. It was the fifth consecutive victory for the Cheetahs and their first streak of this calibre since their Super Rugby inception. Yet again the Stormers were left reeling and lost their own seven match win steak against their opponents. It is a case of going back to the drawing board for the Stormers and you get the feeling that if they don’t start piling up the points in the coming weeks starting with this week against the Sharks, they could be in for an extra long preseason.
Round nine includes a number of mouth-watering fixtures so don’t miss the Chiefs pivotal home clash with the Reds and the Sharks brutal clash with the Stormers. Until next week, enjoy the game they play in heaven!