What a difference a week makes….again.
Last week it was South Africa’s turn to puff the chests out a bit after their “Kiwi-Slam”, but this week things leveled out again and it took another character-filled effort from the Cheetahs to stave off a slam of a different kind.
The Crusaders had to come right sooner or later, but even so I was mildly surprised to see both the Sharks and Bulls beaten in such fashion.
The danger of playing the attritional, intensely physical game that we have seen from the Sharks so far is that it is hard to sustain over successive weeks. They were off their game for the first 40, flat and lacking energy, and the Brumbies pounced.
Penalties had been good enough for the Sharks over the past couple of weeks, but sooner or later you have to score some tries, and to go 245 minutes – the equivalent of three full games – without getting over the white line, is tempting fate.
The Brumbies were brilliant, making hay before the rain really set in, and then holding out well as the conditions went from difficult to impossible.
You have to hand it to Jake White. He’s played it very smart. He’s managed to rid the franchise of the culture of player entitlement that made life untenable for his predecessors, while still allowing his charges to express themselves. As he did with Eddie Jones at RWC ’07 he has found an able sidekick in Laurie Fisher. He took a punt on appointing as captain a Sydney interloper Ben Mowen, a man with no links to the old regime, and that’s paid off. He’s introduced his trademark structure and pattern to the team without stifling the natural flair of his players.
They have very few big stars, especially now that David Pocock is out, and yet his team is functioning better than any other in the Australian conference, in sharp contrast to the Waratahs for example, who are laden with test stars, and yet find themselves at the bottom of the conference.
Now the Brumbies take on the Stormers who come off the bye and will need to be better defensively than they were against the Chiefs two weeks ago.
The Bulls have made a bit of a habit over the years of starting their overseas trips well and then fading in the second game.
There might have been a fatigue factor, or delayed jetlag, but I think it was really a case of the Crusaders not allowing them to play their game.
A key to them taking control of the game was the way they were able to negate the Bulls' lineout drive in the first half, while they got up quickly in defence, and never really allowed the Bulls front-foot ball.
A gauge in such a contest can be the impact of the No 8s. Kieran Read had the ball a lot more in his hands than Pierre Spies, and was a lot more influential as a consequence. Critics of Pierre Spies may accuse him of fading out of the game, but it’s hard for even the best ball-carrier to feature when he's not getting go-forward possession to run onto. Spies had a great game at Eden Park, and even while he was shaded by Read in Christchurch he showed his class with a very dignified post-match interview.
Then there was the strange business of Francois Hougaard, who was picked for the subs when he obviously wasn’t good to play. It left them critically short of impact off the bench and resulted in an out-of-shape back combination that his presence, even on the wing, might have allayed.
However, despite the loss and a few injuries, they have a pretty good chance of bouncing back against the Reds this weekend. The Queenslanders are looking disjointed at the moment, with Quade Cooper seemingly playing a game all of his own.
As for the Crusaders, just as last week was too soon to start writing them off, it’s probably also too soon to say if they are fully back on track.
They now face the Kings and then travel to SA for the very difficult double of the Sharks and Stormers and may well be without Dan Carter whose wife is due to give birth soon. Even with the support they get at Newlands, it shapes as a huge challenge. After that we will have a better idea of their prospects.
The Chiefs are back home with a creditable seven points from their trip to the Republic, after a good win over the Kings. It was an entertaining game, played in what seemed a great atmosphere, with the Chiefs just a bit too strong in the key areas.
After the dizzy heights of their opening-round win, a few realities might be about to set in for the Kings as they head for Christchurch. They are playing with wonderful spirit and determination, but the injuries are starting to mount and for the first time they’ll have to deal with the travel factor, jetlag et al, and a good overseas team in unfamiliar surroundings. This is a huge challenge after a much better start than many expected.
Just one side note. Sergeal Petersen is a real crowd pleaser, hugely promising and a turf burner with his extreme pace, but he’ll need to work on his tackling. I very much doubt his martial-arts-style attempt to stop Liam Messam was malicious, but it was dangerous and could have resulted in a broken leg. The citing process has either ignored it or given him benefit of the doubt, but he might not be so lucky next time.
Finally it was fun watching the Cheetahs do a job on the Waratahs in Sydney for the third successive year and the second time in Sydney. I am pleased to say I picked it in our Virtual Rugby tipping comp!
The trouble with the Waratahs is, after yet another change of coach, they are still struggling to come up with a cohesive game plan. They are under pressure not just to win, but to play an entertaining game to draw fans in a massively competitive sports market, and it really weighs on them. The Cheetahs cashed in on their uncertainty at crucial moments.
Such a terrible shame then, that the wunderkind Johan Goosen should suffer a potential season-ending injury in a training slip, of all things. Goosen was kicking magnificently again, even if he was not quite back to his brilliant best. It is easy to speculate that he was still getting over the lingering effects of the knee problem he had late last year, a situation that can sometimes leave a player vulnerable to new injuries, but in this case it appears to have just been rotten luck.
Hopefully his recovery will be speedy, and complete. Rugby needs players like him.
Finally a photograph from Christchurch. Our ace steadi-cam operator James Staunton was highly amused before the game when Bulls strength and conditioning guru Stephen Plummer approached him and suggested they must have the same father!!
We always thought that James was Roger Federer's younger, not-quite-so-smart brother, but now we know the real story.