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Can South African sides sustain intensity?

Round four of Super Rugby showed just how unpredictable the oval-ball game can be at times. After a worrying round of action the week before, the South African sides turned the tide by surprising their New Zealand counterparts.

In all three victories, the SA sides led from the start and fully deserved to win. I would suggest that those were victories our sides wouldn’t have achieved ten years ago.

Was it a tactical change that led to the SA sides dominating? Absolutely not in my opinion.

It would be great if South African sides could add more of an attacking edge to their game. However, in truth they are never going to be New Zealand when it comes to that style of play – nor should our sides aspire to that.

In my opinion, the SA sides played to their particular strengths on the weekend. The Bulls kicked, chased and contested well. The Cheetahs scavenged well and the Stormers did what they do best by building a lead.

For me, the Stormers produced the best performance of the SA sides as they managed to win the collisions against the defending-champion Chiefs. As a coach you don’t mind a setpiece or defensive concern quite as much as you do being dominated at the collisions.

While the Cape outfit was dominant in that department, they will no doubt be disappointed with their defensive effort. They seldom concede four tries.

Prior to the game, I discussed the tactic of putting the ball in behind the Stormers’ defence and two of the Chiefs’ tries were indicative of that strategy.

While you can argue that the Chiefs’ first try was a moment of individual brilliance where the player spotted space, the second try must surely make fans aware of the top rugby minds plotting behind the scenes.

From a left-handed scrum, Aaron Cruden fed the setpiece; Liam Messam returned the ball and Cruden put a perfectly weighted grubber through. The Stormers defend with their blind wing up in the line, which makes Joe Pietersen last man on defence. On this particular occasion there was no one is sight to stop the try. If the Stormers fail to fortify that area of their game, other teams are going to exploit that weakness.

Going forward, I believe the Stormers will be a better side because of the tries they have conceded. From a tactical and organisational point of view, I would suggest it serves as a valuable lesson.

I was once again impressed with the Southern Kings’ endeavour. They went toe-to-toe with last season’s finalists and as a matter of fact, with five minutes to go, may well have stolen victory. On the balance of play, I agree the Sharks were the better side, but that performance by the Kings will further strengthen their belief.

As a complete neutral observer, when I see 42 000 people at a rugby game, I want their team to do well. We were told the numbers would return to Port Elizabeth and that has proven to be the case. The whole organisation deserves a lot of credit.

It was a great weekend of results for the SA sides, but the big question is whether they can sustain that level of intensity for the duration of the tournament.

Naas Botha famously stated that the Currie Cup is not won in May and similarly Super Rugby is not won in the first four rounds. Yes, the start does play a role but it’s the teams that sustain their performance over long periods that will end up in the play-offs.

With the Crusaders having suffered back-to-back losses, I feel their fellow New Zealand conference rivals would be unbelievably happy because the men from Christchurch, with all their pedigree, remain the team to beat.

The Sharks and Bulls would feel similarly about the Stormers at present. They know the Cape side have proved the strongest SA side over the last couple of years, having won the South African conference back-to-back.

The only conference where the door is no longer completely open is in Australia. The Brumbies are running away with it at the moment. In fairness, however, I don’t think they have played the strongest opposition to date. This reopens the debate of the tournament’s structure, with the Australian sides seemingly facing weaker opposition.

If the Brumbies can come away with a win in the Shark Tank they will be serious title contenders. The Sharks are currently unbeaten and this game represents a great test.

Overall, I expect round five of Super Rugby to be a tougher task for the South African sides.

The Bulls can expect a backlash from the Crusaders, while the Chiefs’ attack will present the Kings’ defence with its toughest examination to date.

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