Focus back where it should be
It was nice to see the focus back on the rugby this weekend past with so much excellent action to gorge ourselves on.
Sunday morning was perfect for me. The blond tornado was at a birthday party, her mother went shopping, and the cat stayed out of my way.
So I had the place to myself, and armed with a big bowl of fresh fruit and cereal sat down and turned on my recording of the Stormers-Cheetahs game. I was not disappointed.
It is great to sometimes watch a game in which you have no emotional investment, just watch it for what it is. What it was, was a classic all-South African encounter, one not for the faint of heart, compelling, and thrilling. When Stephen Kitshoff tried to smash trough Trevor Nyakane I checked the sub woofer on my sound system for damage.
The Cheetahs have morphed from entertaining also rans to genuine contenders for a spot in the playoffs…that is provided they don’t fade late like they did last year. It’s worth noting that they still have to play the Bulls twice, as well as the Sharks and Stormers again, and have tricky home games against the Reds, Hurricanes and Blues, but they are on a roll and, despite their injuries, in pretty good shape. And you gotta love the way they play!
I know some people are up in arms about the final penalty, and maybe it was a bit tough, but then Juan de Jongh's first try looked iffy…he might have come in the side of a ruck, and the second one was a clear offside (possibly accidental but still offside) from a ricochet, so in the end I think the right team won.
And how cool was Burton Francis to land a stupendous drop goal, and that final penalty?
The Stormers are only six points out of the playoff zone, so it’s not panic stations. They still have to tour Australia and New Zealand and could sure do with a win over the Sharks this coming week, but don’t forget they have a fairly reasonably good schedule over the last six weeks.
The Sharks deserved their win over the Crusaders.
Once again a South African double proved beyond the ‘Saders after their rather heroic effort in Cape Town.
The Sharks took their chances through Patrick Lambie's unerring boot, and profited from a mixed day by his counterpart Tyler Bleyendaal and uncharacteristic lapses in discipline from the Crusaders, the result of a combination, I suspect, of fatigue and the vice-like pressure from the Sharks.
They have a tough next fortnight, the Sharks, before setting off on the big silver bird but despite a lack of tries and bonus points, they are in a good spot. You could see how much this victory meant to them, and they deserved to celebrate.
I can’t help but think though that it is going to be very hard for a South African team to get the one or two position on the log at the end of the round robin, and even harder to get more than two teams in the playoffs, because the conference is so tough, and so evenly contested.
And what a great effort from the Kings to draw with the Brumbies.
Just as the Aussie scribes were starting to make a bit of noise about the state of their conference, the Brumbies are checked and the Waratahs lose, leaving the Rebels to get their only win of the weekend at the expense of the Force.
A few weeks ago I wrote of the Kings' defence against the Crusaders as being too passive, an allowing the Crusaders too much room to wind up when running at them.
Against the Brumbies, instead of shuffling sideways, they were coming forward well in defence and didn’t allow the Brumbies to get a roll on. It shows they are learning from their experience.
But really it was a result that owed a lot to character, and the guy who sums all that up is Jacques Engelbrecht. He is a fearsome runner.
It should also be noted too, that after a few weeks casting some sideways glances and references to home town refereeing in Australia, that the match was decided by a very objective piece of officiating by Andrew Lees on the touch, who raised the possibility of an illegal hit on the fringe of the Kings ruck, which ultimately allowed them to create the leveler.
But it was a great result against a team that had been made unbackable by the bookies at $1.01 for the win, and now the Kings can have a real lick at the Rebels before heading home. The Rebels are so hot and cold another win for the Kings is not beyond the bounds of possibility, which could really start a few nervous glances over the shoulder in the South African conference.
Here in New Zealand, as the temperatures start to cool off, the Blues and the Hurricanes have moved up the table, the Blues by dispatching of the luckless Highlanders, and the ‘Canes by knocking off the Waratahs.
The Eden Park game was notable for the crude shoulder charge by Ma’a Nonu on his friend Piri Weepu.
It is clear Nonu is not in a good head space right now. At All Black level he is a weapon, and one of the world's best, but he is again battling to find his happy place in Super Rugby, and many of those who laud him in a black jersey are pouring scorn on him. I think he is feeling the pressure of having to perform at his third franchise in as many years and his frustration got the better of him.
The Hurricanes unleashed what could come to be one of the great brother acts when Ardie Savea joined his brother Julian in a good win over the Waratahs.
Both these Wellington-born lads have come through the system in New Zealand…age group reps, then the Sevens team.
What I like about Julian is that he has eliminated the weaknesses in his game and is becoming a complete player…scoring tries, laying them on for others, defending well and defusing the bombs. I doubt there is a better left wing in the world right now and he’s only 22.
Some believe Ardie, just 19, has the potential to be another Michael Jones, which is a fabulous thought but one best consigned to the shelf for a year or so yet. But he clearly outpointed no less than Wallaby Michael Hooper on his debut. He is like a wing in a number 7 jersey but does all the basic stuff a flanker should do.
So right now, as we approach half way, there are two teams from each conference in the top six, but the Blues, Crusaders and Bulls are all right on the cusp and the Stormers are close enough.
If the Crusaders can get the points in Perth this week they will come home with eight or nine points from their trip which is OK, and will have the likes of Kieran Read to come back into the side, and quite possibly Richie McCaw for the business end.
Only problem is Dan Carter has tweaked a hamstring and will miss what would have been his return game. As he gets older, Carter has become more susceptible to, and definitely more cautious with injuries.
Firstly thanks to everyone who responded to last week's column.
Some interesting comments on the Cape Crusaders issue. It wasn’t my intention to stir it up, in fact as a child of the ‘60s I just wanted to say, “peace, brothers”.
To Kyle John Leigh, there is a bit of concern over who will replace Conrad Smith, with Richard Kahui off to Japan. A lot of people think Ben Smith is the man but the Highlanders still haven’t played him at centre. Tamati Ellison is due back from injury soon, and Rene Ranger is in form but I don’t know if they are long term prospects. Robbie Freuan is a powerful runner, but has lingering defensive issues and still suffers from fatigue as a consequence of massive heart surgery earlier in his career.