Super Rugby fans were greeted with another exceptionally hard round to pick last weekend as a result of some big upsets, blowouts and some very confrontational rugby. One team, the Brumbies remain unbeaten and warning bells will be ringing, not only through their conference, but the other pools as well. Reigning champions the Chiefs returned to the winner’s circle, whereas the Bulls and the Sharks of South Africa experienced the taste of defeat for the first time in this year’s competition. The Highlanders currently hold the wooden spoon, however, you can almost guarantee that they will elevate once things start clicking in Dunedin. I mentioned last week that there were a few ‘one-sided’ matches on the cards, but I couldn’t have been more wrong, but at the end of the day, that is the beauty of the toughest provincial rugby competition on the planet. Let’s have a look at each of the matchups from last weekend in a bit more detail to see who the standout performers were and to find out whom we should keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
Francisco Pastrana, an Argentinian was in charge of the first match of the weekend between the win-less Highlanders and the ever-improving Hurricanes with the New Zealand conference wooden spoon on the line for the loser. The Friday afternoon matchup is usually an advertisement for Super Rugby, however, and it lived up to expectation once again. Although the game was close throughout the course of the match, it was very much a game of two halves. The Hurricanes got off to a flyer in the first half on the back of a superb kicking game from All Black Beauden Barrett. His running game was just as good and reiterated New Zealand’s strength in the fly half position. Players like Julian Savea and Victor Vito thrive off his incisive running and support him very well. It is evident how important Rugby Sevens is to developing a player’s skill set when you watch Victor Vito in action. Smith, Franks and TJ Perenara who is a quality halfback, managed to cross the chalk for the Hurricanes, while Gear scored for the Highlanders. It was a sea-saw battle with seven lead changes before Barrett put the nail in the coffin with two late penalty goals to win 23 – 19.
The Cheetahs travelled to Sydney to face an out of sorts Waratahs in Friday evening’s game. The Cheetahs have had a mixed bag on tour so far after being thumped by the Chiefs and then recording their first ever victory over the Highlanders. This game was going to be a good measure of where both of these teams were currently positioned. To the home crowd’s dismay, the Waratah’s aimless kicking was punished inside the first 90 seconds as the Cheetah’s scored a 60-metre try through Robert Ebersohn. The Cheetahs had 70% of the possession for most of the first half before momentum swung the way of the Waratahs and they managed to go into halftime with a three-point buffer. Peter Betham, starting his first game for the Waratahs this season scored an outstanding try and showed that he deserves his opportunity on this stage after his fine-form for the Tasman Makos in the 2012 ITM Cup. The Waratahs started the second half ominously and the Cheetahs were forced to defend and defend, before ex-Waratah Sarel Pretorious was the catalyst to put rising star Raymond Rhule away for his second try with ten minutes to go. The Cheetahs ended up holding on for a one point victory and have now beaten the Waratahs three times in succession.
Unfortunately for both Cheetahs and Springbok fans, Johan Goosen has suffered a training mishap and torn ligaments in his knee, which will likely see him watching games from the sideline for the next six months. He is extremely injury prone and in my opinion, was very much the linchpin of transforming the game plan of the Springboks to a more open and expansive style. Berrick Barnes has also succumbed to a broken wrist, which won’t be welcome news in Sydney.
The third match of round five saw the tournament newcomers Eastern Province Kings welcome the Chiefs on their last leg of their African sojourn. Many have been surprised by the Kings performances so far and in particular, their defence. The Kings had many more opportunities on attack than they have had in recent weeks and only trailed by five points at the break. Like many expected, the Chiefs never looked like losing and managed to pick up yet another four try bonus point, courtesy of three tries by winger Lelia Masaga. He combines pace with his deceptive strength and is a handful for any defence. The Chiefs prevailed 35 – 34 and managed to pick up seven points out of a possible ten, which proves that once again they are the real deal in 2013. It must be said that the Kings were brave in defeat and not outclassed and their resilience and never-say-die attitude will hold them in good stead moving forwards. One suspects though that as they embark on the overseas tour this week to face a daunting Crusaders outfit, their defence just might start to leak a few more tries.18-year-old sensation, Sergeal Peterson scored his third try of the campaign against the run of play and showed that there is no substitute for pace. Apparently he has clocked a 10.4 second sprint for the 100 metres and I would love to see him in a foot race with Jesse Mogg of the Brumbies who has clocked a 10.6. This week, the Chiefs return home to play the winless Highlanders on Friday afternoon.
One of the predicted matches of the round saw the powerful Bulls head to AMI Stadium in Christchurch to face a star studded Crusaders outfit in front of a healthy crowd on a night conducive to running rugby. The match started strongly for both teams, which is what you expect when two heavyweights of the competition collide. Almost every team that plays the Bulls adopt a wide approach to get their huge pack of forwards running left to right to tire them out. This was the case on Saturday and it went according to plan for the Crusaders as they opened their Super Rugby account for 2013. The Crusaders were extremely patient with the ball in hand and often builded up the phases until the Bulls cracked. Robbie Freuan managed to score the first try after a disastrous opening twenty minutes which saw him do just about everything wrong. He will need to be more consistent if he wants to be an All Black in the years to come.
The Bulls hardly threatened the Crusaders line and were completely outplayed leaking six tries in the process to go down 41 – 19. Kieran Read and Daniel Carter were extremely effective and the ‘Saders back line looked sharp. The Crusaders have been known to start slowly in recent seasons, however, the sleeping giant has now awakened which will make for some enthralling viewing in the games to come, starting this week against the Kings. On the other hand, the Bulls have the unenviable task of travelling to Suncorp Stadium.
The firing Reds welcomed a young and inconsistent Western Force team to their fortress on Saturday evening. The defence of both teams was dominant and very structured in the first twenty minutes of play. In a match where both teams had a high error rate, it wasn’t pretty to watch. Both teams traded penalties early before Kiwi recruit, Alby Mathewson made a great break and setup Alfi Mafi to go over for the games only try. The Reds were left tryless for the first time in a long time at Suncorp Stadium and to compound matters, they were scoreless in the second half. Against all odds, the Force were victorious in an ugly, but deserved result. Based on their results this season, it must be hard to be a supporter given their roller coaster ride to date. Sias Ebersohn is showing how important a good goal kicker is at this level and the Force were hungrier on defence and more precise on attack. Defensively the Force were up to the challenge holding out red wave after red wave with the clock ticking down in their favour. As a result, the Force now sit above the Waratahs and the Rebels in the Australian conference and await the high-flying Cheetahs this weekend, whilst the Reds face the wounded Bulls.
What was built up to be the match of the round with two undefeated teams clashing at the picturesque Kings Park in Durban, turned out to be a clinical and impressive performance by one team and a very subpar performance from the other. There was no jetlag evident as the Brumbies hit the ground running wrapping up the bonus point for scoring four tries in the 34th minute. In the process, they have sent a warning to the rest of the competition after leading 26-3 at half time and managed to hold on to win 29 – 10. The Brumbies completely outclassed the Sharks led by super coach Jake White and a wealth of talented and upcoming stars. In all honesty, it could have been more of a blowout, however, the heavens opened up to rain on their parade somewhat in the second half and ball handling was the victim. All four tries were scored by the Brumbies backs with Jesse Mogg crossing again, proving he is hard to stop when he gets a sniff of the try line. The Sharks have to be somewhat optimistic of their second half performance as they ended up winning the last forty. It was the Sharks first loss of the season and they now sit one spot behind the Bulls of Pretoria. The Brumbies remain the only unbeaten team in the competition, but are faced with an even sterner challenge this week.
Round six sees seven more ‘evenly’ contested matchups on paper, however, we all know you can’t base your picks solely on that. The match of the round once again will feature the Brumbies as they travel to every rugby player’s favourite touring destination, Cape Town. The Stormers employ a defensive wall and the Brumbies are hot on attack so we can expect an arm wrestle. Brumbies coach Jake White comes up against Alastair Coetzee of the Stormers with the latter once an assistant coach to the former for the Springboks.