Alas, no proof of my prediction prowess
On Friday night just before climbing the stairs to the commentary box at North Harbour Stadium, I ran into a bunch of Stormers supporters. There were plenty of them in evidence at Albany – not quite Cape Crusaders proportions, but enough to make their presence felt. It certainly added to the atmosphere.
But these guys wanted to know who I thought was going to win. Veteran Sydney scribe Spiro Zavos has a stock answer to this question: “I don’t know, that’s why we’re going to have a game” – or something along those lines.
Pressed for a better answer than that, I told these lovely people that I couldn’t pick a winner, but I reckoned after 80 minutes there’d be only one point in it.
In fact after 84 minutes there was only one point in it, and afterwards I searched for these people so I could ask them to sign a form confirming my genius, but alas, they had gone. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
They will have gone home disappointed too, after their team created more than enough opportunities but couldn’t turn them into a win.
Many saw it as a clash of the young Blues attack against the imposing Stormers defence, but it didn’t work out that way at all, with the Stormers scoring two superb tries by their captain Jean de Villiers and the Blues having to rely on six penalties by Chris Noakes.
The Stormers started well enough and finished strongly but lost it in the middle 40 after falling behind. They were ragged through that period. Their tactical kicking was nowhere near its usual standard, with the normally ultra-reliable Joe Pietersen strangely off key and Dewaldt Duvenage unable to get any depth on his box kicks. In that period they were guilty of forcing passes, dropping them, and losing the ball in contact.
They spurned an eminently kickable penalty for a lineout, and were perhaps guilty of being over-reliant or over-confident in their lineout drive.
True, they were millimetres from a try to Andries Bekker from one early surge – he placed the ball short of the line, and rolled it forward to get it onto the chalk which is not allowed. He is clearly not tall enough.
But they did eventually come right, and inspired by the twin De Villiers strikes, made a desperate play for the win at the end and very nearly got there.
For once this season the Blues were able to hold their discipline through a 22-ruck stretch in the final minutes, forcing the Stormers – despite their all too obvious reluctance – to go to Elton Jantjies for a hail-mary drop kick attempt from near halfway. He will no doubt be roasted by his critics for shanking it, but it is not his fault the team lost. It should not have come down to that.
For the Blues it was a crucial result. I still don’t think they’ll be good enough to win the whole thing, but they’ve already won more games than they did all last season. They face the Rebels next week before a very tough double against the Crusaders and Brumbies, and still have to face the Sharks and Cheetahs in South Africa, but they are a big improvement on last year, and with Graham Henry back in the coach's box, have developed a defensive system second only to the Stormers themselves.
The defeat was a setback for the Stormers – not a terminal one, but they’ll need points in Australia over the next fortnight.
So too will the Sharks, who gallingly became the Highlanders' first Super Rugby victims in almost a full calendar year.
There were some fantastic tries in this game, but cutting to the chase, it all went up for decision in the final minutes when the Highlanders were hard up against their line, infringing incessantly, down to 14 men as a consequence, and having to play beyond 80 minutes because of the penalties they were conceding.
Most seem to be saying the Sharks did the right thing by striving for the try that would give them five for the game, and – let’s face it – most rugby players do play to win games, not draw them. The other side of the argument is that in such a tight competition, a certain two is surely better than a missed four or five.
Right now that extra point is worth one place on the table. Who knows what it will mean come July. The Brumbies were happy to kick a goal for a bonus point on Sunday and that was enough to keep them top of the log.
And should Steve Walsh have been harsher on the Highlanders? Probably, but the refs seem to subconsciously “re-calibrate” after giving a yellow card. It’s like the count goes back to zero, and to me it doesn’t make much sense. I thought he was lax on the breakdown throughout the game, allowing players on both sides to leave their feet and come in from the side, which made it very messy.
Talking of which, there were some TMO calls in the Chiefs-Rebels game that were so bad they were almost comical.
What should have been a regulation victory for the Chiefs became a white-knuckle ride to the finish line after two tries were awarded to the Rebels, one from an offload that travelled a full three metres forward, the other from a pass that was not quite so bad, but still clearly forward.
Then a try that would have put the Chiefs out of reach was called back because of some alleged knock-on confirmed by the TMO. The Chiefs have made a formal complaint and rightly so.
There was another in the Waratahs-Kings game as well, and so despite being able to call on replays, we still have a major problem. Judging forward passes is not easy because the TV camera angles rarely line up. I suspect the only way we will ever be able to know for sure is by a combination of some miraculously positioned overhead camera and “virtual” lines on the screen. I’m sure some genius out there can come up with the technology to assist in the way they have been able to help out cricket umpires.
Still, the Chiefs got their five to stay top of the NZ Conference, just a point behind the Brumbies overall and having completed their offshore travels for the season. On the downside, they’ve lost All Black Richard Kahui to another shoulder injury, and the career of this fine player may well be over.
The upside for Australia is that Kurtley Beale is back and looking sensational, giving Robbie Deans a real headache as to who to pick at fullback to play the Lions.
Personally, I think it has to be Beale. Jesse Mogg, as Jake White has warned, is still too inexperienced for such a high-pressure series and got a bit of stage fright against the Crusaders to underline that. Jake also reckons they shouldn’t pick Israel Folau unless he commits longer term to rugby, but after seeing him against the Kings, you’d be very tempted, would you not?
Elsewhere the Bulls made short work of the Hurricanes in a quite awesome performance, although the ‘Canes were generous with their intercept passes. The Waratahs head home to face the Sharks after dealing severely with the Kings, but the Reds have lost a little momentum with their second draw in three weeks.
And then to cap the weekend we had a terrific battle between the Brumbies and Crusaders.
Despite a rough start when the Brumbies scored from an intercept, the Crusaders just had more of an edge about them. After a first half that saw a lot of shadow boxing, they really opened out in the second half with a couple of great tries.
The second of these was a Crusader classic from a defensive turnover deep in their own 22. It was like someone flicked the switch and suddenly the old Crusaders – and in particular Israel Dagg – were back.
They’re still seventh, but to beat such an excellent side as the Brumbies like that, in their eleventh consecutive game, sends out quite a warning shot. Their schedule from here on is very favourable.
The Brumbies were a bit off key, with Mogg just one of a number of their key players not really impacting on the game, and while they finished strongly, it was too late. I still see them topping the Aussie conference, but they might have a fight on their hands now to keep top spot on the log.
This coming weekend is a bit unusual with three of the top teams having a bye, and the games that stand out for me are the two big SA-Aussie clashes in Australia, which are going to be massive in the context of the season. From a neutral position, they’ll be fun to watch, and with newfound confidence in my powers of prediction I’ll say: one each!
Just don’t ask me who.