Defence wins championships
I wrote last week that I thought the Stormers were the team to beat in this competition, and their favourites tag has been enhanced by their clinical, emphatic victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin.
I thought they might be vulnerable in this game, coming off a bruising match against the Bulls and having to travel such a long way, but travel does not have to be a burden when teams are fit, focused and professional.
I am an avid follower of American sport, and whether it be MLB baseball, NFL football or NBA basketball, you keep hearing the same mantra over and over…. “defence wins championships”.
The jerseys may have been white, but this was the “Blue Wall of Cape Town” at its best. Sure, the Highlanders played into their hands with a lack of variation in their play, especially in the first half, but the Stormers' defence was superbly organised and the impact of their tackling helped to slow the home team's ball down and allowed the defence to reset, or “re-calibrate” according to the latest buzz word.
And of course they handled their try-scoring opportunities with aplomb. Joe Pietersen capped a marvelous game with a candidate for try of the season. The Stormers are playing championship-winning rugby and they have a great chance to strengthen their position this week when they play a Crusaders team that was much better against the Bulls, but still not at their best and now face the long haul home.
The Loftus clash was a classic, uncompromising encounter which swung on penalty kicks. Morne Steyn kicked more than Dan Carter and that was that.
No-one can begrudge the Bulls that win; they edged it against an elite side, but there were two jarring notes.
The fact that the citing commissioner couldn’t find any evidence to support two Bulls complaints of eye gouging doesn’t rule out the possibility that there was something untoward going on, although it is interesting to note that the Bulls did not lodge a formal complaint after the match.
If accusations of eye gouging are accurate and proven, then the culprits deserve heavy bans.
If not, and false claims have been made, then those making them should be sanctioned also. Earlier in the year Waratahs back Tom Carter accused Melbourne's Adam Byrnes of gouging, and after an initial ban based on flimsy TV and anecdotal evidence, the punishment was overturned and Byrnes was exonerated.
Carter should have been at least fined for bringing the game into disrepute, and for besmirching a fellow player's reputation.
We have to be careful here that the white card doesn’t become a catalyst for gamesmanship.
Eye gouging is a filthy trick. Aurelian Rougerie should have been ousted for six months for what he did in the World Cup final, when there was such conclusive evidence.
But there are also times when a hand, elbow, whatever, will inadvertently make contact with the eye area…it’s inevitable in such a high-contact game, and there should be a need for players to tread very carefully when making allegations of gouging, because no honest player deserves to have his reputation clouded in such a way.
Secondly, obstruction laws allow a player who has passed the ball to maintain his line of running. He does not have to get out of the way of any defender as long as he does not alter his position or line of running to move into that defender's line.
Dan Carter certainly did impede Bjorn Basson's path towards Sam Whitelock, but in a manner that was entirely within his rights, and the assistant referee, Pro Legoete – who had the subsequent try ruled out – got it wrong.
It wasn’t the only dodgy call going the way of the home side over the weekend. I thought there was some doubt over Conrad Smith's try against the Sharks too. There was barely a fingernail in it.
In both cases it didn’t really matter, so far as the Crusaders scored anyway very soon after, and the Hurricanes were all over the Sharks, but last year we had matches being decided by incompetent or home-town calls (the Crusaders' loss to the Reds in the round robin stage being one stand-out example) and it simply isn’t good enough.
The only good news for New Zealand in another weekend when South African teams had the most significant wins, was the rather startling victory for the Hurricanes over the Sharks and another solid four points for the Chiefs over the Force.
The 'Canes are a bit like the Cheetahs in that they will not win this competition, but they are capable of as good a brand of attacking rugby as anyone, and woe betide anyone who drops their guard against them.
The Sharks didn’t help themselves by giving away a welter of needless penalties.
Chief culprit for the Sharks was Jannie du Plessis, surprising given that he is such a highly intelligent man but he had a game he would prefer to forget quickly. The 'Canes were not much better in this regard – the count was 13-all – but like the Bulls at Loftus, the penalties the 'Canes conceded didn’t do them as much harm as those conceded by their opponents.
The Sharks will get the chance to get back on track this weekend when they take on the Blues at Eden Park. In the early days of Super Rugby this was always the most anticipated clash, but right now this Blues team is performing so poorly that no-one could back them with any confidence against any team. Heads will roll in the Blues franchise – nothing is more certain.
The Chiefs are now in South Africa, and while the Crusaders-Stormers game probably looms as the big clash of the weekend, I wouldn’t mind being at Bloemfontein on Saturday afternoon for their clash with the Cheetahs.