Stormers and Bulls still soaring
The two fiercest local rivals and top South African teams continued to soar as the Easter Weekend marked round seven of Vodacom Super Rugby, and although it is still early days, both the Stormers and the Bulls look on course for the playoffs.
Which team enters that phase in the quarterfinal stage and which advances straight to the semifinal by being the South African conference winner is still debatable, although at this moment the Stormers are clear favourites to retain the title they won last year as they continue to hog top spot both in the conference battle and on the overall log.
The only unbeaten team in the competition retained their clean slate with a superb win over the Highlanders in Dunedin, and it is hard to imagine a South African team making a more perfect start to an overseas tour. Cape Town to Dunedin is as far as you can travel for a Sanzar sanctioned match, so it was understandable that many critics felt this would be their first hiccup of the season.
From the off though it was clear that this would not be the case as the Highlanders ran into a brick wall in the form of the physical Stormers, and with the big Highlanders strength of aggression at the breakdown being negated by the visitors, there was always only going to be one winner.
Fullback Joe Pietersen delivered the perfect riposte to critics who questioned his place in the last line of defence, scoring an excellent try and generally being good in all areas of the game.
The young Stormers forwards again impressed and although they have a tough clash with the Crusaders in Christchurch this coming weekend (no South African team has won there since the late 1990s), they look primed to soar even higher away from home than they have at Newlands over the past two months.
This video is not available in your region
The Bulls were one of the teams who had their aspirations dented in Cape Town, but they climbed back on the horse in convincing fashion against the Crusaders at Loftus, though perhaps their coach Frans Ludeke should be concerned at their tendency to start slowly.
It was in the first half that the Stormers effectively won the derby clash and with a bit of luck the Crusaders could also have sown up the game before halftime.
As dominant as the Crusaders were in the first half though, so the Bulls were dominant in the second. There was a late fightback from the Crusaders, something the Stormers can consider a warning about the capabilities of their next opponents, but in reality the Bulls were far more convincing victors than the two-point margin would suggest – similar in a way to Newlands the previous week, where the Stormers were much more than three points better than the Bulls.
Francois Hougaard was the man who kept the Bulls alive in the first half and it was he who ignited their charge in the second, deservedly winning the man of the match award for his dynamic efforts.
The Cheetahs returned home to continue their impressive surge up the log with a win over the Lions in which their often criticised defensive system was the stand-out, but the Sharks had their lax defence, something that is now becoming too much of a habit to be ignored, to blame for their disappointing loss to the Hurricanes.
The Sharks won all the ball and dominated territory, and yet somehow conspired to concede six tries to a Hurricanes team that play the same lateral game that the Highlanders do and which the Stormers found so easy to defend against.
Could the difference between the two coastal teams be that one has a specialist defensive coach and the other doesn’t?
It is still early in the competition and although the Sharks have had their chances of making the playoffs severely dented, they are still clinging to life, and a win over the Blues in Auckland this week will still give them a platform to launch off when they return home. But the Blues must be in a desperate mood after yet another defeat, this time at the hands of the Rebels.
While the Blues continued their plummet and are now sharing bottom position on the overall log with the Lions, the Reds stabilised upon returning to Brisbane by deflating the high octane feeling the Brumbies must have been experiencing after their strong start to the season.
Suddenly the Brumbies have three defeats in six starts and aren’t looking so pretty – a reminder to all teams of just what an unforgiving and relentless competition this is.
Rebels 34 Blues 23
Hurricanes 42 Sharks 18
Reds 20 Brumbies 13
Western Force 12 Chiefs 20
Highlanders 6 DHL Stormers 21
Toyota Cheetahs 26 MTN Lions 5
Vodacom Bulls 32 Crusaders 30