Bulls offer Sharks blueprint
The Australian teams kicked off Super Rugby this season and I’ve been very impressed with the quality of rugby the Brumbies have played. Jake White did very well in his first season at the helm and now everyone expects the side to build on last season’s progress.
At this point in time, the Brumbies are certainly the pace-setters in the competition. For me the biggest contributing factor to their success is confidence.
From a South African perspective it was the Southern Kings who gave by far the most energetic performance this past weekend. Considering how long it took the Lions to gain their first Super Rugby win, the men from Port Elizabeth deserve much credit.
Another side who enjoyed a confident start to Super Rugby were the Bulls. Tactically the Bulls played the perfect game against the Stormers. They dominated territory not because their set piece or defence was better, but rather because their kicking game was far more effective.
The ball was so often put in behind Bryan Habana because the Stormers play with their back three up. This makes the blindside wing have to work that much harder to get across. This ploy could make life tough for the Stormers going forward because they have become dependent on opponents running back at them and their defence holding strong.
There is no question that any team will struggle to win rugby games if they play the majority of the game in their own half.
I thought Morne Steyn was superb against the Stormers. Pat Lambie was good against the Cheetahs, but Steyn was unbelievable. He completely ran the game. He kicked his goals, kept his team going forward and to be honest that is as good as I’ve seen him play.
In South Africa I believe we are far too quick to write players off. I think he will play himself back into Springbok contention.
The Sharks-Stormers derby this Saturday will be huge as all of a sudden the Stormers are under pressure. In Super Rugby you simply cannot afford to lose two games in a row.
It would be absurd to even consider writing Elton Jantjies off. The Stormers attack looked really good against the Bulls and there was plenty of penetration.
I would definitely give Jantjies another shot to kick at goal because he is a brilliant goal-kicker and has kicked consistently well for a long time.
While the Sharks will try to target the Stormers at the set-pieces, I believe the Cape side have a better set-piece than many give them credit for.
Overall, the one area of the game in Super Rugby which hasn’t impressed me so far is the set-piece. They have been really average. In the Aviva Premiership the scrum plays a massive factor whereas in Super Rugby it’s just a way to restart the game. The purists would love a good contest in the scrum.
On paper, the Stormers are definitely stronger than last season. In 2012 they had a number of unknown players who came to the fore and moulded into a cohesive unit. Having brought in a number of new additions for 2013, it’s impossible that the team’s cohesion would not be affected no matter how good the new players are.
For me this highlights the value of cohesion. It will take the new players a little while to settle, but the problem in Super Rugby is that you just don’t have the time.
While the Sharks-Stormers game is tough to call, for me the deciding factor will be whether the Sharks have learnt from what the Bulls did. The Bulls showed that the blueprint for beating the Stormers is by turning them around.
The Sharks are an interesting team to plan against because they play so much of their rugby off the cuff. The main way to beat the Sharks is by stopping their ball carriers. The absence of Bismarck du Plessis and Willem Alberts definitely weakens the Durban side, but their style of play won’t change. They remain dependent upon individuals getting them over the gain line.
In my opinion, their attack is not very creative but rather relentless. Personally, I don’t think the Sharks’ attack is good enough to break down Stormers’ defence. I think the game will become a bit of an arm wrestle particularly among the pack.
The flyhalf battle between Lambie and Jantjies adds another dynamic to the match. I believe the No 10 who is able to manage his team best will end up on the winning side.
Finally, turning to the New Zealand conference, the fact that Crusaders had a bye last week makes the New Zealand conference a little difficult to judge.
However, the Blues made a strong opening statement against the Hurricanes. Last season in particular the Blues were notoriously poor at closing out games, but under the mentorship of John Kirwan they will be a completely different proposition.
Friday’s game will be a true test for the new-look Blues. While there is no doubt the Crusaders will be on top of their game, if the Aucklanders can earn another big scalp they will definitely be in the running this season.