First big Kiwi-Saffa contests
The Chiefs are heading for the Cape and the Bulls are on their way to New Zealand for the first big Kiwi-Saffa contests of the Super Rugby season.
I say this, of course, with respect to the Cheetahs who were the first to make the big trip east across the Indian Ocean. They have become a popular team in the Land of the Long White Cloud because of their unyielding determination to run hard at the opposition to the bitter end, but on Saturday night in Hamilton they were put to the sword by the defending champions.
It wasn’t looking that way for an hour though, and who knows, it might have been different had the boys from Bloem been able to turn territory and possession into points. But all they managed was a solitary penalty to a strangely out of sorts Johan Goosen. As fatigue set in in the second half they started to fall off tackles and the Chiefs finished with a flurry of tries to blow the score right out.
Perhaps with another week to reset the body clocks they will be in better shape for their match against the Highlanders.
Everyone here still remembers their storming finish to beat the Hurricanes in Wellington last year, so they won’t be taken lightly. But the Southerners will have Brad Thorn and Andrew Hore back and will be determined to atone for their poor first up outing against the Chiefs a fortnight ago.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs know they will be in for a much tougher task when they strike the Blue Wall of Cape Town. The Stormers must be feeling a little edgy right now after a brutally tough first fortnight….whoever did the draw must have something against them, but now they will have the comforts of home for a match they really need to win to kick start their season.
What the Chiefs will take most encouragement from the Hamilton game is not their blistering attack…everyone knew about that…but their defence. With the Cheetahs gaining plenty of ball, they had to work hard to keep them out, and made over 100 tackles at a 90% success rate. We have already seen that they will not give up the title without a fight, even if a lot of people wrote them off after the departure of Sonny Bill Williams and Sona Taumalolo.
The Newlands clash will be a contrast of style. It will be fascinating to see if Allister Coetzee keeps faith with Elton Jantjies, who was seen as the man to bring some attacking flair to his new team. I note he is getting a hard time from some of the fans, but to be fair he has had to deal with some slow ball, which is not going to help any flyhalf.
The loss of Eben Etzebeth has also been massive for the Stormers, but even if they are struggling to get their season under way, the travel factor and home advantage tips the pre-game scales slightly in their favour. However, if the Chiefs can get some quality possession then even the Stormers' defence will be stretched to contain them.
Hopefully this game will live up to expectations because the match in Durban didn’t really do so. A whopping 59 kicks in general play meant for a fairly torrid scrap, with very little ball movement except for that that was sent via air mail. The Sharks will not be bothered, that was a very valuable four points, but for a neutral observer it was not a great spectacle.
The Bulls had to work surprisingly hard to finish off against the Force, and at one stage were contemplating a shock defeat. They opened up like a team that was hell bent on a big score, but when the game was in the balance they reverted to type and for the second week running their forwards finished really strongly, which is a great sign. Their forward drive is the best in the competition.
They face a tough job now though, against a Blues team that started the year tipped to finish bottom of the New Zealand conference by many, but who have the maximum ten points from two games.
They turned on a ripping performance against the Crusaders, scoring five tries to none, serving notice to the Bulls that they will have to make their tackles or else. I’m sure Frans Ludeke will try and get his team to trap the Blues in their own half and force them into errors or into giving away penalties. The Crusaders did it for a while and it kept them in the game with Dan Carter knocking over five penalties, but the problem is the Blues attack is so hard to contain over 80 minutes that three pointers may not be enough.
It’s a Sunday afternoon game so the Bulls will at least get an extra day to get over the effects of the west to east travel, and I’m sure Auckland’s big expat South African community will come out in force to support them, but in quick time the Blues have gone from no-hopers to a force to be reckoned with. Blues to win, for my money.
It all makes for a great weekend, and I’m picking that two games will go NZs way and one to SA, probably the Cape Town game, but predicting results is not a strong suit of mine!
Finally I note that more players from New Zealand and South Africa are being lured by European clubs, with Morne Steyn the latest to confirm his departure.
In New Zealand there was always a tendency to let guys go as they neared the end of their career and try and keep the rising stars at home, although as part of their attempt to break the World Cup drought more of an effort was made to keep a few old stagers around.
But now we are seeing players being picked off in their prime, such as Richard Kahui, or even before reaching their potential…lured by a mix of money and test prospects, like Crusaders wing Sean Maitland who virtually went straight from Edinburgh Airport to Scotland training because of a grandparental link.
The growing seriousness of the situation can be highlighted by the reports of a young South African player pulling out of the SA under 20s because he feels he might have a better chance of playing test rugby in the UK.
It’s hard to know what can be done to arrest this, maybe limit the qualification to a parent, rather than a grandparent, otherwise it’s making a bit of a mockery of test rugby when a guy can suddenly start playing for a country he’s never set foot in and has zero emotional ties to.