For the second week in a row the round’s opening match delivered an upset, followed by quite a few other less-than-predictable scorelines. Here’s our review of all the action:
Crusaders 10 – 18 Chiefs
With most of the possession, it was the Crusaders that did the majority of running and it took some resilient defending by the visitors to keep them out. I said that Robbie Freuan was one too keep an eye on after his franchise hop and he didn’t disappoint, bumping no less than four defenders to cross for the first try. Aaron Cruden added two penalties for an eleven point lead before Sam Whitelock dotted down shortly after halftime.
Both Tyler Bleyendaal and Tom Taylor had a horrendous time with the boot, missing seven kicks at goal before Taylor eventually slotted one to make it a one-pointer. The scene was set for a thrilling Saders comeback, only to have young Tasman winger James Lowe intercept a loose ball and run in a 80m try to deny the hosts any log points.
Cheetahs 15 – 9 Bulls
In Bloemfontein the Bulls suffered their first ever defeat against the Free Staters. One would’ve thought that they’d have learned something from their hapless performance against the Sharks, but things looked even worse in the heavy rained that spoiled any chance of attractive rugby. The torrential downpour lead to a large number of handling errors and it was clear the Cheetahs had a territorial plan and stuck to it.
Their defence was yet again impenetrable and Johan Goosen saw to it that they took most of the points on offer. The Cheetahs will head Down Under on a high whilst it’s back to the drawing board for the Bulls who got bullied on the ground and seem to be playing without any confidence or execution.
Highlanders 29 – 21 Blues
Saturday’s first fixture was very much a game of two halves and one that makes it hard to understand how the Blues did not win with every single stat going their way. They had far more possession, territory, runs, offloads etc. and the Highlanders were forced to make double the amount of tackles, but Sir John Kirwan’s troops failed to capitalise. The Landers’ front row and loose forwards were superb in defence, smothering the ball on the ground.
The two Smiths also continued where they left off after the November Tests, both getting on the scoreboard during the first half, and the new recruits showing a lot of promise as Patrick Osborne and Malakai Fekitoa completed the quartet. Having recovered from the shock of going into the break 24-0 down, the Aucklanders pulled themselves together and displayed the kind of skills we expect from a team riddled with talent. Francis Saili had a fantastic day at the office, deservedly opening the scoring for the Blues and then the two reserve props bulldozed their way over the whitewash. Unfortunately it was too little too late and had the goal kickers for both teams managed to split the posts more often, the pendulum could’ve swung either way.
Brumbies 17 – 27 Reds
Contrary to the media hype of more running rugby, the Brumbies struggled to deal with the Reds defence and were often forced to kick the ball away on the attack. While the forwards did most of the defending, it was Quade Cooper and Lachie Turner who shined for the Reds. Cooper has had better days, but his contribution was invaluable with two assists and a few perfectly aimed shots at goal, whereas Turner showed off some brilliant finishing skills and aided his team with a few terrific try-saving tackles.
Jesse Mogg scored the sole Brumbies try on an evening that he would want wiped from memory. Not only did he miss a penalty attempt that could’ve resulted in a draw, a crucial knock on lead to the Reds’ third try and therewith the Brumbies’ losing bonus point.
Sharks 27 – 9 Hurricanes
Even though they notched up their second win in as many matches, I must say that I was quite disappointed in the Sharks. The backline fumbled the ball too often, not making their forward dominance count. With so much go-forward ball and a game up on their opponents, one can only ask how on earth they didn’t score at least four tries. Pat Lambie brushed up on his goal kicking skills and missed only one.
I am, however, very worried about Bismarck du Plessis in the captaincy role. It seems to have taken away the fire that he used to play with – two average performances from the leading hooker in world rugby isn’t something that should be swept under the carpet. On the night nothing worked out for the Hurricanes, their rustiness clearly on display through numerous errors and missed tackles. The Canes have a lot of ironing to do ahead of their Newlands clash while the Sharks will have the weekend off.
Lions 34 – 10 Stormers
There can now be no doubt that the Lions’ win over the below par Cheetahs was not a fluke. It only took them twenty minutes to bowl the visiting Stormers over. The sensational fashion in which the Lions accumulated points in the first quarter rattled the striped side beyond repair. Stefan Watermeyer sliced through the defence to get the hosts into the lead very early on, before Maritz Boshoff and his flawless boot again stole the show.
He continuously kept the scoreboard ticking, adding three drop goals just to rub salt in the already bleeding wounds. Supporters in and around Cape Town are screaming for the coaching staff to be fired, while management is adamant that the players have to take responsibility for the appalling lack of imagination. The Stormers were shockingly predictable with ball in hand, insistently hitting the line one-on-one without support or dummy runners. On the other hand Johan Ackerman’s pride defended their line as ferociously as a lioness would her cubs. There was just no way through for the coastal team and they will have to go back and seriously address a large number of issues.
Waratahs 43 – 21 Force
All talk of the Western Force’s improved defense was snubbed very quickly after the Waratahs ran in six tries, including a trifecta from the ever-present Israel Folau. The Tahs still have a lot of polishing to do, especially in midfield, but look an extremely dangerous outfit. Apart from the magnificent awareness displayed by Folau, their new mile-a-minute flyer Alofa Alofa also announced himself as an opportunistic try seeker.
I firmly believe that it’s only a matter of time before Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale are able to read each other like a book, something that will be very ominous for their opposition. I really don’t see the Force improving this season. The one area of strength they had last year was their defense and that let them down in first game into the new season. If they can’t rectify that, they’ll have very little going for them.
By Jackie Smit