Some positive things for the winners
With just one match and with another 12 to play, neither eulogy nor epitaph would be appropriate for any of the five South African teams competing in this year’s new-look Vodacom Super 14.
The Cats were as woeful as they ever were in the days when they were an amalgamation of Lions and Cheetahs when they went down to the Stormers in the wet at Ellis Park. Although the Stormers only won 23-12, you got the impression they were just engaging cruise control after their 10 point flurry when they were reduced to 14 men.
Certainly in their off-the-record conversations last week the Stormers players made it quite clear they were highly confident of a win over the Cats, maybe even took it for granted. After an initial 10 to 15 minute period where the Cats mauling proved troublesome, the Stormers settled and it always looked like a regulation victory for them.
After losing a match at Ellis Park which so many expected them to win (in retrospect you have to ask why, for the Cats have not beaten the Stormers since 1999 and the Lions haven’t been too flush against WP just lately either), it is tempting to say that the Cats are in big trouble.
But then those Cats who were part of last year’s franchise will recall that at the corresponding stage of 2005 we were writing them up as world beaters on the basis of just one game. That was of course after their unexpected win over the Bulls, a match which many, myself included, saw as a sign that the Cats had come of age.
Well, it turned out to be anything but that, with the Cats not winning a game after that (one of the Sunday newspaper writers seemed to think the Cats beat the Stormers last year, but it was in fact the other way around).
So if it could turn in the downward direction last year after just one game, why can’t they turn the graph in the opposite direction after their first game of 2006? All it requires is for them to settle on a game-plan, get Andre Pretorius back from injury, find some structure to their play, discover the ability to play beyond just a couple of 10 to 20 minute spurts.
Okay, so it is asking a lot, I know, and to be honest, the Cats have always been the team I have considered most likely to be relegated.
But this is not supposed to be about the teams that lost at the weekend. Rather, it is intended to focus on the positives. And there were several of those from the Bulls, the Sharks and the Stormers.
While my relegation tip is the Cats, the Sharks appear to be the choice of many other people (there are also some who say the Stormers, but I cannot see that as realistic unless the Stormers have a really freak sequence of injuries).
The Durbanites may yet find themselves in the relegation zone, but they showed with their great win over the Chiefs that at least they will make a good fist of their anticipated fight for survival.
I was in Durban in January and watched a couple of Sharks training sessions. Being there was quite an eye-opener, for there is no doubt that Dick Muir does have a lot of young talent, and a healthy smattering of journeyman to help guide the new players.
For my money the Sharks are a year or two away from capitalizing on the benefits of the flow of talent coming through, but there is enough depth in most positions to keep them relatively competitive. Perhaps the most pleasing thing about the win over the Chiefs was the fact that no less than six really young players were blooded, and they should have benefited from the confidence booster of being on the winning side in a Super 14 opener.
It is going to get tougher for the Sharks, and the better they do initially the harder it might become later when they become more of a known quantity, but those who are assuming that doomsday is imminent for rugby in Durban should hedge their bets for a few weeks.
The Bulls were made to sweat towards the end of their victory over the Cheetahs, but I thought the good thing they got out of the match was the knowledge that they had won while being matched and at times even dominated in the lineouts.
And though their strength remains the tried and tested formula of keeping the ball in close channels, there is also no denying that they also have plenty of fire-power out wide, and will punish teams this year on the counter-attack. They also were impressive with the way they held their nerve in those final minutes of a tense struggle.
For the Stormers it is not difficult to pinpoint the big positive. It was of course the tight five, and here it has to be said that the match against the Cats was not the first time this year I had been impressed with a Stormers lineout and scrumming effort.
A second string combination was selected to play against an almost full-strength Bulls team in a warm-up match a few weeks ago, and for long periods of the game the Stormers youngsters did really well.
In that game there was a notable improvement in the technical efficiency of most aspects of their first phase play, and those signs were carried into the first competitive match of the season. Gary Gold and Jerome Paarwater put in a lot of work on the Stormers forwards in the off-season, and with several of the Stormers pack being youngsters who have shown great promise, maybe the Cape forwards should be treated with a bit more respect.
If my hunch proves correct, and the young Stormers forwards remain injury free and choose this year as their moment to come through, this could be a season where the Stormers exceed all expectations.
But they might not like me saying that, for I recall writing a particularly positive column about the Cats this time last year, and we know what happened from that moment on…