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  • Things We Learned - Round 3 of Super Rugby
    Rugby

    1) You can already see the fiesty edge a World Cup year brings to some derbies. 2) Warren Whiteley won't take a draw for an answer. 3) Coenie Oosthuizen might just be a test tighthead after all. 4) The Chiefs and the Hurricanes are the early leaders when it comes to playing fluently. 5) The Honey Badger is back to save us from pointless interviews.

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    Things We Learned – Round 3 of Super Rugby

    1. You can already see the feisty edge a World Cup year brings to some derbies.

    There were big Springbok one-on-one match-ups all over Loftus on Saturday, and all the one-upmanship was there for all to see. Victor Matfield vs Pieter-Steph du Toit was as mouth-quenching as it was mouth-watering, with the old dog ending up teaching the new dog some old tricks. The game also marked another fascinating chapter in Handre Pollard vs Patrick Lambie, not to mention the seemingly timeless Springbok battle of Adriaan Strauss vs Bismarck du Plessis.

    This was all accompanied by all the appropriate niggle, needle, scuffling or any other quaint term you want to use for guys trying to push the boundary as far as they can when it comes to hitting each other (which was also clearly on show in the other big derby of the Super Rugby weekend, Chiefs vs Crusaders). Let’s face it, we all love to see that in rugby, provided the referee keeps the players in check.

    Unfortunately, when it came to the officiating, scuffling Springboks was the least of referee’s Jaco van Heerden’s problems. New to the SANZAR refeering panel after a more than promising Currie Cup, this game really proved to be a baptism of fire.

    He certainly could’ve been given much more support from his TMO Johan Greeff. Ever since TMOs started adjudicating on forward passes, we can’t seem to get through one weekend without a hemisphere-wide debate around what’s forward, what’s not forward and what can be conclusively proved to be forward. However, surely we should be able to say with confidence that there was more than enough evidence to call Jessie Kriel’s try-assisting pass to Francois Hougaard forward? Shoot, if Greeff sees that pass as flat and good, heaven only knows what colours he sees in that dress.

    As for the quality of rugby itself, only 3 scrums in an entire game says a lot about the lack of handling errors on show. World Cup year has jolted some big players into action already.

    2. Warren Whiteley won't take a draw for an answer.

    Regardless what you may think of Lions captain Warren Whiteley’s on the hooter decision to gamble in an attempt to gain 2 extra log points (for the win as opposed to the draw) at the risk of losing 1 (for getting just the losing bonus point as opposed to 2 for the draw), you have to admit that there’s something refreshing to see a team just think “Screw it. Let’s just try and win it.”

    In the end, he was one Howard Mnisi spill/fantastic Damian de Allende tackle away from a fantastic bit of maverick captaincy that could really have kick-started their season.

    The importance of log points in the professional and the bonus point age has seen many a game peter out into anticlimax in the dying minutes. How often have we been somewhat unsatisfied by the team that’s 8 points behind choosing to go for poles with a minute left? Shoot, in the European Champions Cup (the artist formerly known as the Heineken Cup), it’s not unusual to see teams that are 6 points behind kick their penalties out on the hooter because they don’t want to lose the losing bonus point they have as opposed to go for the win. Yawn.

    In the age of all of this, it’s refreshing to see a captain see a rugby game as something that just needs to be won, dammit. Good on Whitely for deciding that settling for a draw is not what the Lions are all about.

    Realistically speaking, at the end of the league stage of Super Rugby, how costly could that point end up being? It seems a tad early in coach Johan Ackermann’s rejuvenation of the team for them to translate fine Currie Cup results into a spot in the 2015 Super Rugby playoffs. So, in a tournament with no relegation, how much will that log point gamble cost the Lions? Probably nothing.

    With the repercussions of losing the gamble hardly looking costly, the Whiteley spirit should be applauded nationwide (and not just in Cape Town).

    3. Coenie Oosthuizen might just be a test tighthead after all.

    This round, a man of the match performance when matching up against All Black Tony Woodcock. In the first round, another eye-catching performance when matching up against Springbok Beast Mtawarira (albeit for only 25 minutes). Could it be that the Coenie tighthead experiment at tighthead is over and he is now just, well, a tighthead?

    It’s been 3 years since Oosthuizen switched to the right side of the scrum and it’s a period that’s been full of sweat, tears and complaints. Doubts were expressed from all quarters if this was in fact the right move (this writer included).

    If it turns out that he has been successfully groomed into an effective test tighthead, it would me a major highlight of Heyneke Meyer’s 4-year building for hopeful World Cup glory, not to mention affirmation of fine work done by Springbok scrum coach Pieter de Villiers, Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske and Cheetahs scrum coach Os du Randt (those 3 would make up a pretty handy front row, wouldn’t they?).

    Let’s hope Oosthuizen turns this good start into a consistent season. Same hope applies to the Cheetahs. The seemingly annual concern about their squad defections have been put aside for the moment with a handy win return of 2 out of 2. It wasn’t altogether a clean cut victory against the Blues, but any close, edged out win will feel great in Bloemfontein right now when you consider how many close games the Cheetahs lost last year.

    As for the Blues, their start has now turned into something close to a disaster. This is the first time that they have lost their first 3 games, and when you consider that they won’t be able to enjoy their normal familiarity of playing at Eden Park until round 9 (because it’s been made available for the ICC World Cup), you start seeing a start that could stay uphill for quite a while.

    4. The Chiefs and the Hurricanes are the early leaders when it comes to playing fluently.

    In this competition, especially in the early stages, you can’t help but think that you’ve got a better chance of seeing fluent rugby in New Zealand with your coffee in the morning than in South Africa with your beer in the afternoon (if you do in fact enjoy your 8:40am kick-offs with a beer, you are not alone far be it from me to judge).

    From the New Zealand Conference (where the grass often looks greener), the two leading lights are the Chiefs and the Hurricanes. Both have not just pulled off 3 wins out of 3. Both have done it showing some pretty eye-catching rugby this round.

    The Chiefs backed up their forward dominance against the Crusaders by continually cutting through their defence. They ended up dishing out a sound hiding to their neighbours, who seem to be going through their annual slumpy start. Almost seems a waste to have this fixture early in the tournament before the Crusaders have got into their groove. It’s almost always a classic when their rustiness is gone.

    As for the Hurricanes, they backed up 2 ground out wins in South Africa with a steamroller win in little South Africa. Perth ‘locals’ got to see the visiting players tear into the Force, who boasted a really tight defence last year. Along with their seemingly much tightened up unit up front, the backs found a need to unleash some attacking urges that they restrained in collecting wins in the Republic.

    The Hurricanes have a bye this weekend, but round 4 starts off with the Chiefs in action as they entertain the Highlanders on Friday morning. Enjoy that coffee.

    5. BONUS POINT: The Honey Badger is back to save us from pointless interviews.

    The Nick Cummins interviews were starting to get milked last year with a little too much advantage taken of the Australian winger’s unconventional comments and quirky similes. However, as rugby microphones are still being filled with blandness around him, we should all welcome the Honey Badger back from Japan.

    It’s a boom age for pointless interviews in SANZAR. Most post-match formalities are tedious. The half-time interview is nothing but a cue for bathroom breaks hemisphere wide. As if that’s not enough, the scourge of the during-match interview has crept in, with 2014 boasting everybody from substituted players to Fikile Mbalula sharing their thoughts. What’s next? Interviewing players in the sin bin?

    Cummins isn’t fit enough to play for the Force yet, so he lightened up the usually oh so ghastly shift of the during-match interview. His words still remain a breath of fresh air, even if he did describe his Japanese colleagues as “honourable little buggers”. It’s a little coarse and patronising, but you can’t help but let it slide when it rolls off that bumpkin tongue.

    Never change, Nick Cummins. Play your cards right, and you might just score being mic’d up while you’re actually playing.

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  • Things We Learned - Round 2 of Super Rugby
    Rugby

    1) The Stormers need to compose themselves after their opponents haven't. 2) The Sharks are at home when it's wet. 3) The Hurricanes can grind it out when necessary. 4) There's a new way to give your opponents a helping hand. 5) Lose the cocaine, and you might get another kind of positive result.

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    Things We Learned – Round 2 of Super Rugby

    1. The Stormers need to compose themselves after their opponents haven’t.

    Bring out the “win is a win” cliché. While you’re at it, dust off the old “if you offered that to them before kick-off, they would have taken it” quip.

    As rugby clichés go, “an early red card galvanises the team” is in its fledgling stage of rugby parlance, but it’s sure to have a long and prosperous period of usage.

    You could see the game change as soon as Hayden Triggs decided to punch Duane Vermeulen after 24 minutes. Not only did the Blues damage control kick into gear, but you could immediately see the Stormers mindset shift from patiently going through the game’s processes to rushing their attempts with a bonus point (supposedly) now on offer.

    It didn’t quite work. Huge credit to the Blues for their defensive work with 14 men, but the Stormers must look at all their forced passes without always...wait for it, cliché fans...”earning the right to go wide”. They had 55 minutes to wear down opponents that were a forward short. No need to rush things, even with a bonus point in mind.

    The Stormers also showed a loss of composure in other areas. Along with their impressive tackling, the Blues tried to bring as many niggling acts as possible to try and disrupt. A late tackle here, slapping the ball out the scrumhalf’s hand there...shoot, the game couldn’t go through one scrum without Scarra Ntubeni seemingly lashing out at some front row play.

    The Blues rattled them, and some Stormers players let it get to them. It didn’t bring out any cards, but it did help the visitors’ damage control.

    Also, the ghost of Ireland’s not forming a defensive lineout maul against the Springboks in November is rearing its head more in rugby. The Blues not only used it to try and milk truck and trailer penalties, but to also let players come in from the ‘wrong side’ once the ‘maul’ hadn’t been formed, just like the Irish did that fateful day.

    South African sides need to figure out a lineout plan B that can be called immediately after they see the rolling maul isn’t on. In the World Cup context, maybe this type of planning should be Victor Matfield’s homework. Shoot, with the form he’s showing on the field, the least he could do is reassure Springbok fans that he’s ‘on it’ off the field.

    2. The Sharks are at home when it’s wet.

    If this round was anything to go by, Durbanites should be feeling a bit more comfortable when it pours at Kings Park this year, and not just because it gives mushy World Cup ’95 semi-final flashbacks.

    Not only did the Sharks look far more control of their game when running it from all quarters wasn’t an option, they ended up with a bonus point win too.

    Their scrum dominated their extremely fancied opponents. The Lions are always going to be considered hearty scrummagers after their 8-man shoving strengths were displayed last year, but they came off second best as the deluge of rain rendered their preferred low scrumming position basically impossible.

    However, it seemed to suit the Sharks just fine as they cashed in on the scrum penalties and even the odd tighthead. Lineouts operated pretty agreeably too. All this fine operating in the wet bodes well so far in a South African context when you consider how many Sharks forwards will be in the mix come World Cup time.

    Speaking of players in the World Cup mix operating well in the rain, the controlling of the game shown by Patrick Lambie was very assured. Sure, it’s a whole lot easier when the scrum is going forward, but those pin point kicks don’t land on the pin themselves. His halfback sidekick Cobus Reinach also showed enough nuisance quality in the puddles.

    It was a day that wasn’t going to showcase too many players numbered over 10, but that definitely suited the Sharks. Now they just need to work on getting 1 to 15 all involved when conditions are less apocalyptic.

    3. The Hurricanes can grind it out when necessary.

    That’s the first time the Hurricanes have won two games in South Africa since 2008 (when the Super 14 format made them play three games in the Republic that year). That’s quite an achievement for a team who, by their captain Conrad Smith’s admission, are unable to play the rugby they want to because it’s so early in the season.

    Smith’s words seem telling after they leave their tour with 2 ground out wins and 8 points in a mission well accomplished. It’s not usual for the Hurricanes to be so reserved in their ball playing, regardless of the time in the season. They’ve always seemed committed to throwing it around from round 1, loosening up the game while backing themselves to be better at having fun than their opponents.

    There seems to be a new, different long term vision on how to go about a Super Rugby season in Wellington. This is Chris Boyd’s first season as Hurricanes coach after taking over from Mark Hammett. His effect can be seen already.

    4. There’s a new way to give your opponents a helping hand.

    While the Hurricanes worked hard for their win at Loftus, they were certainly helped in the dying minutes by Grant Hattingh’s Hand of Odd.

    With the tryline at his mercy, the lead on offer and a fair amount of room in the corner, the Bulls lock dived in left arm first only to have the try disallowed because of his hand touch in goal before he grounded the ball.

    It was totally avoidable and shouldn’t just be shrugged off as “one of those things”. Being aware of the in goal area in those circumstances is not exactly in the final exam from the David Campese school of finishing. The slight adjustment that was needed in his arm movement is not exactly something out of a contortionism 101 handbook.

    Bulls, the log isn’t going to help you until you help yourselves.

    BONUS POINT: Lose the cocaine, and you might get another kind of positive result.

    Cocaine dealing? Well, this generation of Australian rugby players have provided their fair share of off-field misdemeanours in their time, but take a bow, Karmichael Hunt.

    The new Reds player (who’s played both Rugby League as well as Aussie Rules) has already secured his place in the Hall of Infamy with these drug charges.

    He made his debut in round 1 in a 47-3 hiding that was given by the Brumbies. He was left out for the next game against the Force and the Reds won 18-6. If these allegations are true, hopefully the Reds won’t see the difference in their fortunes with him and their fortunes without him as a coincidence.

    It’s clear that Hunt has a lot to learn about life in rugby union. He just needs to see the Wallaby scrum to know that Australian players aren’t pushers.

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  • Things We Learned - Round 1 of Super Rugby
    Rugby

    1) Home advantage for what? 2) Look out for that Stormers scrum. 3) The Rebels have a clue. 4) The Gold touch might take a while at the Sharks. 5) Let's not confuse chivalry with being sensible.

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    Things We Learned – Round 1 of Super Rugby

    1. Home advantage for what?

    So many away wins? Well, you don’t see that every day.

    6 teams lost at home in the 7 matches played this opening round of Super Rugby, including all 3 conference winners from last year.

    As far as results in general were concerned, it was a fascinating start to the tournament that should be enjoyed. ‘Should be enjoyed’ is the operative phrase here, because you can hardly find a South African that hasn’t broken out into sheer mourning over their SuperBru.

    Once, just once, it would be nice to sit back in a game where you’re a neutral and just enjoy an upset without all around you trying to bring you down by wailing about their SuperBru. As if anyone's boss in the office pool got an advantage because he guessed the Rebels would beat the Crusaders away.

    If your team was involved in a loss, condolences, better luck next time and all that jazz. For all other games, just enjoy. Upset results are supposed to be fun. Stop worrying about your damn SuperBru. Some of you go on as if you’re offended that the winning captain didn’t apologise for screwing it up for you.

    If all South Africans were able to pat themselves on the back for getting 7 out of 7 with all the predicted teams winning comfortably, Super Rugby would be in an awful state as a competition.

    2. Look out for the Stormers scrum.

    The Stormers scrum going forward at Loftus? Well, you don’t see that every day.

    Whatever money the Stormers are paying Vincent Koch to play tighthead for them this season, it’s worth it for what he provided in that first half alone. The rest of the pack joined in for a thoroughly dominant performance when it came to 8-man shoving. You could see it take the wind out of the Bulls sails once they started fearing that their scrum was going to go backwards all night.

    From there, the Bulls just couldn’t get up to what was needed. The clanger drop of a kick from Jurgen Visser resulting in a try for Dillyn Leyds almost seemed to deflate the home side completely.

    With the Stormers playing two debutant wings at Loftus, all pre-game sense suggested that their major testing point would be how they’d deal with the high ball. For fate to twist that into the Bulls fullback being the one that has a nightmare spill so that one of the debutant wingers could score brought a psychological subtext that was probably worth far more than 7 points for the Stormers.

    It was one of those games that all stemmed from the scrum. The days of the Bulls laughing at Brok Harris are over. The days of the Stormers laughing at how Vincent Koch couldn’t make the Bulls Vodacom Cup side have begun.

    3. The Rebels have a clue.

    The Rebels won in Christchurch? Well, you don’t see that every day.

    Beating the Crusaders in their own backyard will always be a special result for any team. It’s even more special when you consider that this is only the 5th season for the Rebels since they were created from scratch. To contextualise that, all the South African franchises combined have only beaten the Crusaders once in New Zealand in the last 13 seasons.

    Even though the Rebels got two yellow cards in the game, they could still hold out for a famous win. The highlight for them was probably the sheer ferocity of some of their tackling. What better way to negate some Kiwi offloading than making doubly sure they go backwards in the tackle? In this regard, young flank Sean McMahon is becoming a crunching SuperSport rugby montage all on his own.

    As for the Crusaders, well, we all know they start slow. Happens every year. No need to write them off until we hit round 6 and they’re still underperforming. Then they’ll still make the final.

    4. The Gold touch might take a while at the Sharks.

    The Cheetahs won in Durban? Well, you don’t see that...wait...actually it happens quite often.

    It was a more than deserved win for the Cheetahs and one that looked thoroughly well organised. From set piece to defence to discipline, they were ‘on it’. Throw in an assured flyhalf performance from Joe Pietersen and Coenie Oosthuizen rampaging his way to try and prove that he is indeed a tighthead, and you’ve got a team display thoroughly in order from top to bottom.

    Since it’s the Cheetahs, we’ll wait to see how consistent they’ll be, but even if half their games are like that and the other half are absolutely awful, it would still be a big improvement from last season.

    As for the Sharks, it all seemed disjointed. There’s been plenty of pre-season talk from this new Gary Gold regime about them opening up their game more (which is an accurate diagnosis of something that was missing to take them to the next level last season), but for all their industry in passing the ball, they seldom cashed in.

    Maybe spreading it wide will bear more fruition in Durban after February when the dreaded dew factor fades and makes the handling easier. The Sharks still have plenty of good players, so if they do get their balance of their new playing style right, they’ll be up the table sooner rather than later.

    BONUS POINT: Let’s not confuse chivalry with being sensible.

    With 20 minutes to go at Loftus, Damian de Allende went over in the corner for the Stormers but lost it forward. Referee Jaco Peyper referred the incident to the TMO, only for de Allende to tell him that it’s unnecessary and that he knocked it on.

    It was a nice touch, but the reaction to it has been fairly over the top in some quarters. It’s not the biggest example of chivalry and sportsmanship (for instance, some of the comparisons to a batsman walking after he’s been given not out are way off the mark).

    De Allende knew the try was never going to get awarded by the TMO. After all, there was a camera right in front of him as he spilled the ball.

    Let’s not get carried away praising the return of all things chivalrous. Instead, let’s just be grateful for how sensible he was not to waste the world’s time as we have a TMO referral that goes to camera 1, then camera 2, then back to camera 1, then camera 3, then back to camera 1 but this time it’s in real speed, then the TMO asking the referee to repeat the question while Peyper opens his second bottle of Powerade.

    Hopefully more players follow de Allende’s example of being sensible so that we can all just get on with it. However, let’s save the chivalry label for acts on the field that are truly chivalrous like refusing to do the half-time interview.

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