At least Springboks have tweaked staff
Two email news releases from Saru caught the eye this week.
Firstly that the Blitzboks had not just arrived in Las Vegas, they had arrived “safely”. This detail is important because unless they start boarding the wrong planes and going to the wrong country, or are beset by some other mishap en route, they are not going to be beaten for this year's HSBC World Series.
Secondly, the news that the Executive Council had “reaffirmed its support” for Springbok coach Allister Coetzee.
This has been met with predictable outrage, but from this end it’s not a shock. There is a contract, and besides, and despite suggestions Jake White is (again) showing interest, they may not be flush with ready alternatives.
They have at least made some much-needed tweaks to his staff, adding Franco Smith, moving Mzwandwile Stick down the hallway and leaving a vacancy for a properly qualified defence coach.
Whether it’s enough remains to be seen. Importantly, by giving Johan Ackermann the A team reins they are setting him on the right path for the top job, while allowing him to grow by staying with the Lions. Now would be too soon, and I speak from our experience in New Zealand with John Mitchell when Wayne Smith walked the plank in 2001.
History has taught us not to expect too much from the opening round of Super Rugby.
Teams are usually a little under done, a little over eager.
You get the odd exception, like the incredible Chiefs Highlanders game of 2013, from which one end-to-end-to-end-to-end-to-end try is still racking up the clicks on You Tube, but that was one out of the box.
We didn’t get anything quite like that over the first week of 2017 but it was far from the worst opening round in my hazy recollection.
Most of the games were still a contest deep into the 80 minutes, with just two blowing out.
Blues fans have been guilty of getting carried away with a first up victory on numerous occasions since they last won the title in 2003, but their seven-try win in Melbourne gave rise to some justifiable optimism.
They have as much fire power as any team in the competition, and it’s worth noting their victory over the Rebels was achieved without All Blacks Jerome Kaino, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sonny Bill Williams and James Parsons, with Charlie Faumuina, Rene Ranger and George Moala restricted to bench duties.
The key will be their pack getting a platform, and the arrival of rising forwards coach Steve Jackson should help. The other key will be the elimination of the silly errors that kept the Rebels in the game for longer than they should have been.
Friday saw a tough double header, with the Chiefs showing massive resilience to score their first win over the Highlanders in seven attempts.
They burgled three tries and spent much of the rest of the game in scramble mode, as the Highlanders repeatedly attacked.
The Chiefs have been one of the best coached teams in Super Rugby for five years now, but Dave Rennie put this one down to a fantastic team bond that revealed itself in the willingness of players to put body on the line. It augers well.
The only downside of the encounter was a head injury that is likely to sideline Highlanders talisman Ben Smith for some weeks.
We had friends around for a barbecue on Friday night (yes, my spicy butterfield lamb leg cooked over Namibian Hardwood charcoal was sensational, thank you), and so I recorded the Dunedin game, and thought I’d watch that, and catch up with the Sharks Reds game later.
But I kind of got hooked up in the Brisbane game and ended up watching that live, followed by the Chiefs Highlanders. It made for a late night!
It looked for a while that the Sharks might eke out a win, but Pat Lambie missed a challenging penalty kick and then a clear and obvious forward pass was missed in the lead-up to the decisive Reds try.
The Sharks defended stoutly, but the Reds did score four tries to two, defended well against a limited attack, and might have made things a little more comfortable had Quade Cooper managed better than 50-50 off the tee. The Sharks had more ball, but didn’t do enough with it.
They’ll have to sharpen their attack for the second game on their tour, against a Brumbies team that fought heroically in Christchurch.
The Crusaders looked set for a comfortable win, but the Brumbies showed that even without David Pocock, Stephen Moore, Matt Toomua, Joe Toomane, and the rehabilitating Christian Lealiifano, they will roll over for no-one.
Scott Fardy led their forward effort quite magnificently and their tenacity kept them in the hunt right to the death.
Their downfall was a familiar theme for many teams playing against the New Zealand sides in recent years.
New Zealand import Wharenui Hawera was playing his first Super Rugby game, and neither he nor fullback Aiden Toua kicked at all effectively. The fact that Hawera and Jackson Garden Bachop are filling such vital roles for Aussie teams after not being required at home, does underline the depth issue in Aussie rugby right now.
The Crusaders will be pleased to get out with a win. It came at a cost with their outstanding fly half Richie Mo’unga sidelined for two months with a hand injury. They are settling into life under a new coach and should improve.
The prequel to that match was an exhibition game in Tokyo, where the defending champion Hurricanes ran riot against the Sunwolves.
It is such a shame that the Sunwolves have again had to go into this important competition on such a woefully short preparation.
I can do little more than endorse the comment made by a New Zealand writer this week that Sanzaar have given Japan rugby a fantastic opportunity, and Japan needs to do more to justify it. The fans turned up in great numbers, but it appears the industrial giants who own the domestic clubs are not behind this venture. This presumably reflects the lack of ambition that Eddie Jones talked about when he quit as national coach.
The Hurricanes did play some sparkling rugby, and the latest offering from the Barrett production line, Jordi, looked sensational, but we’ll have a more realistic idea when the Canes take on the Rebels this weekend.
In Oz, the Saturday night fare was a hard-fought Waratahs win over the Force, decided in the end by goal kicking, with league convert Reece Robinson stepping up with great effect in the absence of Bernard Foley.
It was a struggle, but the big positive for the ‘Tahs was the effect some extra rugby in the off season has had on Will Skelton.
Even though he’s shed a few kilos he’s still a massive presence, with a really good skill set for such a big man. There has been a tendency to use him either for the Wallabies or Waratahs in almost a “hatchet man” role, but used more positively he could be a cornerstone of a very good Waratahs team this season.
Of the three games in South Africa, the pick was the Stormers and the Bulls, as good as any played this weekend,
It was great to see the Stormers open up with vision, flair and accuracy going into the creation of their tries. SP Marais finished off arguably the best team try scored all weekend.
Handre Pollard admitted in his post match interview that they were taken a bit by surprise by the Stormers approach and that probably goes for a lot of us.
In recent years there has been a tendency of some senior Stormers players to take too much on with ball in hand, which inhibited their play. Robbie Fleck and his new assistant Paul Feeney, a good acquisition, have clearly encouraged this team to broaden their attack, and it was a promising effort.
The Bulls fought back well from a bad situation at the break, and it was a really good contest, but their scrum will need a lot of work to get up to standard.
It is disappointing to read of the injury to Damien de Allende. But after watching him trying to bash through holes that weren’t there last year it was great to see his more creative side re-emerge in this game.
Fears that the Lions might suffer a bit from having a bunch of players spend the off season in Japan might have been given a little traction as they battled to put away a courageous Cheetahs side. The ground conditions probably didn’t help, but in the end you take the positives, grab the points, feel encouraged that you were able to win without looking anywhere near your best and you move onto next week.
And the Jaguares were too good for the Kings.
As the Jaguares found out themselves last year, this is a competition where a couple of bad spells, in a game, or a ten-minute drop in standards can be fatal, and the Kings were their own worst enemy in this regard.
The Jaguares do score some fantastic tries, and are always worth watching, but this doesn’t tell us much about their prospects.
I’ll end with an attempt to predict the round two outcomes. It may be the only time I try it this year.
Force v Reds
Chiefs v Blues
Hurricanes v Rebels
Highlanders v Crusaders
Brumbies v Sharks
Sunwolves v Kings
Lions v Waratahs
Stormers v Jaguares
Cheetahs v Bulls