Expanded Super Rugby off to a flying start
The revamped 18-team competition was plagued by criticism over the summer: too convoluted, too confusing, too many uncompetitive teams. If Round 1 was any indication, however, we’re in for a wild ride over the next five months. The nine matches produced 52 tries, while the new bonus-point model – whereby teams must score three tries more than their opposition, rather than simply four tries or more – added a new dimension to the back-end of games. But the high standard of play was the real feature; the customary sloppy play and fatigue was conspicuously absent on the whole, while the new law tweaks didn’t have the same stop-start impact as previous years.
Plucky newcomers instantly add colour
Argentine franchise the Jaguares made a winning start to life in the Super Rugby grind, pulling off a thrilling 34-33 away victory over the Cheetahs. After having two players sin-binned midway through the first half, the debutants fell behind 24-3, but clawed their way back brilliantly – most notably through a pair of spectacular tries finished off by zippy halfback Martin Landajo.
The boot of Pumas flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez, one of the players yellow-carded, landing all four conversions and slotting a penalty and a drop goal. It certainly wasn’t enough to suggest the Jaguares will play finals in their first year – as many pundits are predicting – but it will undoubtedly be entertaining watching them try.
The feel-good story of the round, though, was the Japanese Sunwolves’ entry in front of 25,000 eager fans in Tokyo. Despite their short, disjointed build-up, the unfancied hosts did well to restrict an impressive Lions outfit to 26-13, competing wholeheartedly for the full 80.
Their homegrown Test players were solid, but the standout feature was the performance of their expats, including South African fullback Riaan Viljoen, USA flanker Andrew Durutalo, Samoan flyhalf Tusi Pisi and Australian No.8 Ed Quirk. Whether the side can maintain that level across the 18 rounds – particularly playing overseas – remains a big question mark, but the Sunwolves appear determined to win over the doubters.
Youngsters light up opening round
The post-World Cup vacuum resulted in a stack of relatively unheralded youngsters getting their shot in the Super Rugby limelight in Round 1. Bryn Hall, Blake Gibson (Blues), Teihorangi Walden (Highlanders), Shaun Stevenson (Chiefs), Richie Mo’ounga (Crusaders), David Horwitz (Waratahs), Ngani Laumape (Hurricanes), Aidan Toua (Brumbies), Reece Hodge and Ben Meehan (Rebels) grasped their opportunity with both hands on the weekend.
The 19-year-old Stevenson’s snatch-and-grab try in his first start for the Chiefs – followed by a six-shooter celebration – was a particular highlight.
Brumbies and Waratahs set to dominate Oz conference
The gap between the heavyweight Brumbies and Waratahs and the rest of the Australian conference was brought into sharp focus in the opening round, with the Brumbies demolishing runaway 2015 ladder-leaders the Hurricanes 52-10, and the ’Tahs whipping the embattled Reds 30-10 in a lacklustre derby. Boasting a stable line-up, the Brumbies were unstoppable against a disturbingly out-of-sorts Hurricanes side, while the Waratahs’ rejigged backline – missing the injured Bernard Foley and the departed Adam Ashley-Cooper and Taqele Naiyaravoro – was on song.
Elsewhere, the injury-depleted Rebels maintained their outstanding record in Perth with a 25-19 defeat of the Force. But the controversial finals qualification set-up – which dictates a maximum of five teams from the NZ and Australian conferences can qualify for the eight-team finals – suggests it will be exceedingly difficult for any Aussie sides, bar the NSW and ACT powerhouses, to make it.
New era for the Blues
Tana Umaga could hardly have hoped for a better introduction as coach of the long-suffering Blues, with his enthusiastic young charges pulling off a 33-31 win over defending champs the Highlanders at Eden Park. After a scintillating, end-to-end opening 40 minutes – featuring sensational tries by both sides – the Blues found themselves four points in arrears.
The hosts got into the grind in the second half, pinning the Highlanders down at the own end for an extended period to build a 33-24 lead before holding off a withering late comeback by the premiers. Umaga’s decision to start cast-iron veterans Rene Ranger and Charlie Faumuina on the bench proved a masterstroke, with the All Black reps playing a vital dual role as impact players and calming influences in the second half, while his otherwise youthful squad showed composure and character that has been missing from the Auckland side for several seasons.
Chiefs and Crusaders produce a thriller
There was no Matt Todd, Ryan Crotty or Israel Dagg for the Crusaders, and no Hika Elliott, Michael Leitch or Sonny Bill for the Chiefs – not to mention the bevy of All Blacks greats who left both franchises at the end of last year – but the high-profile Kiwi franchises produced a typically engrossing showdown in Christchurch. The Chiefs overturned a 13-8 halftime scoreline, and a six-point deficit with 15 minutes left, to prevail 27-21 via two late tries.
Full time. Chiefs steal the ball and tie up time to cap off another great night down south
CHIEFS 27 | CRUSADERS 21 pic.twitter.com/f7F3T19teR
— Chiefs Rugby (@ChiefsRugby) February 27, 2016
Sharks, Stormers rack up big wins
Favourites in their respective conferences, the Sharks and Stormers racked up big wins over South African rivals in Round 1. Willie le Roux scored a try in his Sharks debut, while winger Odwa Ndungane bagged a double in a 43-8 thrashing of the returning Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth. The Stormers also clinched a bonus point via a three-tries-to-none, 33-9 defeat of the injury-hit Bulls, with flyhalf Robert Du Preez starring.
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugby) February 27, 2016
SUPER 18 – ROUND 1 RESULTS
Blues 33 d. Highlanders 31 @ Eden Park
Brumbies 52 d. Hurricanes 10 @ GIO Stadium
Jaguares 34 d. Cheetahs 33 @ Free State Stadium
Lions 26 d. Sunwolves 13 @ Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium
Chiefs 27 d. Crusaders 21 @ AMI Stadium
Waratahs 30 d. Reds 10 @ Allianz Stadium
Rebels 25 d. Force 19 @ nib Stadium
Sharks 43 d. Kings 8 @ Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
Stormers 33 d. Bulls 9 @ Newlands