A bit of everything
The first full weekend of Super Rugby was as good as you could hope for, with plenty of action, drama, intensity and a touch of controversy spread across the three conferences.
Firstly, to acknowledge the Southern Kings' first win in Super Rugby. They will come across better opponents than the Force, but regardless, this was an important win on so many levels.
A lot of what I have heard about the Kings coming out of the Republic has not been all that positive or enthusiastic, and they certainly have their detractors, but in winning with a pointedly all-South African line-up against overseas opponents, and unleashing a couple of home-grown stars is a really positive first step.
I’m sure a few Kings fans will be photographing a competition log that has their team top of the South African conference and the Stormers bottom!
And while they are almost certain to stay top after this weekend because of the “free” points on offer it’s a shame for them to have the bye. They might have been better served taking some momentum into their second match rather than a week off. It seems slightly absurd that after this coming weekend, four teams will have played 3 games and three teams will have played only one.
So it’ll be a while before the logs start to take on meaningful shape, but the “derby” matches (I know they’re not strictly derbies in the truest sense of the word, but I’ll stick with it until someone comes up with a better description) in particular will give us some early pointers about the strength of the respective conferences.
I got up early on Saturday to watch the Stormers-Bulls match. I’d tipped the Bulls to win last week, and they got there, but they had some help.
I thought the TMO decision to award the try to Chiliboy Ralepelle was very questionable….the footage was inconclusive at best, and I’m one of the believers of benefit of the doubt going to the defending side..
But the Stormers didn’t help themselves. You’re not going to beat the Bulls by kicking only one of five penalty opportunities and winning just over half of your own lineouts. How badly did they miss Eben Etzebeth? On the positive side their defence was typically stubborn and organised and as I say they were unlucky to concede one try.
Certainly what we saw at the weekend proved that widening the powers of the television officials is no cure-all. There was an equally dubious penalty try awarded in the Wellington game. I thought it was certainly a yellow card for Frank Halai knocking the ball over his own in-goal, but to say a try “probably” would have been scored was drawing a long bow.
And in the game in Brisbane there was a really bad misunderstanding that allowed the Waratahs to score a try that could have been crucial. Referee Chris Pollock was right to refer upstairs over a forward pass, but perhaps someone upstairs or “out the back” forgot that you can go back two phases. Had they done so the offending forward pass would surely have been picked up.
I guess it’ll take a week or two to settle in. but there we have one decision that was crucial to the outcome of a game, and two that might have been, all dubious at best, and all made with the help of replays.
There is general satisfaction in New Zealand at the quality of the two games we had here.
The Chiefs have shown they won’t give up their title without a fight, as they ran out a spectacular win over the Highlanders in Dunedin. Neither side had anything like their full complement out, but both teams showed a positive attitude in front of a big crowd and provided an entertaining start to the New Zealand season.
The Blues weren’t exactly weighed down by expectation, but scored a satisfying win over the Hurricanes to mark Piri Weepu's 100th Super Rugby appearance.
I can’t see the Blues winning the title, but they have some astonishing young talent, and they have something really positive to build on now.
This will be a very difficult and unpredictable conference, but with New Zealand teams notorious for pulling the rug from under each other, it’s already hard to see more than two teams qualifying.
Finally a nod to Jonathan Kaplan for becoming the first referee to control 100 Super Rugby matches.
He had a lot more hair when he first refereed out here in 1999, but he has lost none of his character. Like most of the refs I’ve always found him an affable, interesting fellow, having sat next to him all the way from Sydney to Johannesburg about 10 years ago – that’s a flight of over 14 hours. He was good company and helped make what can be a tedious flight go a bit quicker.
Most importantly he has been an outstanding ref. At his best he was without peer in the world, and even now when he is presumably in the twilight of his career and has handed the title of No 1 in the business to Craig Joubert, he is still better than most.