So often, a week of anticipation can lead to disappointment as matches descend into tense, dogfights devoid of spark or imagination. Not this time. On Saturday, two starkly different – yet equally intriguing – contests heralded the first knockout phase of this season’s Super 15. Now, everyone is hungry for the next episode in a drama that has kept us gripped since February. Here is the best of the action:
Sharks enjoy feeding frenzy
In the wake of Quade Cooper’s suspension, an early injury to his replacement Ben Lucas, a baffling ‘no try’ decision from the TMO and Charl McLeod’s crucial interception try at the beginning of the second half, it would have been easily for the Reds to make excuses over a 30-17 defeat. Nobody would have listened. The defending champions were simply outclassed and completely dismantled by a vintage performance.
Making a total mockery of home advantage (and my rather bold prediction), the Sharks hurtled out of the blocks. Ruthlessly punishing turnover ball, they played with such width and pace that they were impossible to live with from the outset. First-quarter scores from red-hot JP Pietersen and Paul Jordaan were things of true beauty, sweeping moves through numerous pairs of hands that bypassed hapless defenders with ease. When Tendai Mtawarira – the world’s premier scrummager – pops up on the wing, flicks out a goose-step and attempts a gravity-defying off-load, you know the Sharks have come to play.
However, the true architect of their menace was a back-row trio that should certainly begin the Springboks’ next assignment. Skipper Keegan Daniel, Marcel Coetzee and Ryan Kankowski appeared superhuman and provided seamless links between a rampant pack and a scything backline. Even when the raucous Brisbane faithful bayed for blood in the second half, the South Africans engulfed their opponents with incredible defence to define their desire. A trip back home to face the Stormers comes next for the men from Natal. I do not intend on betting against them.
A word for the Reds, who can bow out the competition with pride. Young Liam Gill is a diamond, Anthony Faingaa never stopped running and Scott Higginbotham signed off with the same guts he has shown throughout a long campaign – the Rebels will be grateful for his aggressive industry next year. Despite a strange tactical decision to move him out to stand-off upon Lucas’ nasty ankle-twist, Will Genia did his best. The Queenslanders will come back stronger.
Crusaders know-how sets up semi against Chiefs
Where one South African outfit was inspired, the other seemed curiously subdued. In a typically emotional atmosphere at the New AMI Stadium in Christchurch, the Crusaders never really seemed in danger of not reaching the final four for the eleventh successive season. In fact, only solid tackling – both Dewald and Jacques Potgieter in the back row hurling their bodies about manically – prevented the Bulls succumbing to a far more lop-sided scoreline than the eventual 28-13.
Of the 12 (mostly careless) penalties that the visitors conceded, six were converted by Dan Carter in another serene showing by the All Black fly half – he also managed his team’s sweeping attacks with aplomb. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his opposite number as Morné Steyn endured a nightmare evening. Horrible punts, indecision in defence for Zac Guildford’s try and a petulant high tackle on Carter made for something close to his last outing for South Africa – the torrid third Test against England in Port Elizabeth. With Pat Lambie struggling to shrug off an ankle complaint, Elton Jantjies and Peter Grant must be rubbing their hands. Heyneke Meyer may need them next month.
The tie’s other high-profile head-to-head, between captains Richie McCaw and Pierre Spies, was a similar story of Kiwi dominance. Even out of position at the anchor of the scrum, New Zealand’s talisman proved his unparalleled excellence around the paddock once more. He will be relishing a showdown against the Chiefs’ wing forwards this weekend when national bragging rights go on the line.
Exiles’ extras impress at Edgeley Park
While London Welsh’s progression from Group B of the J.P Morgan Asset Management Premiership Rugby Sevens looks fantastic on paper – three wins out of three, including a fifty-point hiding of Leicester Tigers – it should be taken with a considerable pinch of salt. Flanker Michael Hills captained his club, but the rest of the Exiles’ squad were exactly that – essentially, a horde of ringers brought in to bolster the efforts of the Aviva Premiership new boys. They have a chance to grab silverware on August 3, but expect the going to get tougher for London Welsh from here on in.
The Sharks are shoo-ins for a second Try of the Weekend award in a row. This gorgeous attack, rounded off by Paul Jordaan’s unopposed saunter to the line, grabbed the gong. Watch out for Keegan Daniel’s sublime take-and-give that puts his teammate in the clear:
Crusaders second row Sam Whitelock looks to be nearing the form of his life and takes the Hero of the weekend for his brilliance against the Bulls. Still just 23, he is sure to be New Zealand’s enforcer for years to come.
TMO uncertainty has formed a nagging, ominous cloud over the past fortnight of fixtures in this hemisphere and Liam Gill’s non-try added a sour (if irrelevant) note to the second qualifying final. Jonathan Kaplan asked the wrong question and was indirectly incriminated by a frustrated Will Genia in the press afterwards. The whole process is becoming a recurring Villain.