The very short version.
1. A little bit more seniority at the Bulls goes a long way.
2. The Waratahs must be taken very seriously.
3. The Highlanders are far from the disaster story of last year.
4. South African teams are still heavily reliant on the rolling maul and some Australasian sides are still struggling to counter it.
5. Robbie Kempson is taking the half time interview to new lows.
1) Schalk is back, bitches. 2) Who needs Patrick Lambie's goal kicking when you have Frans Steyn? 3) The Bulls have a lot of new faces, but the Loftus fixture is still a bitch. 4) Jean de Villiers is starting to get what he wants out of referees. 5) Jaco Peyper would be better off just admitting he made a mistake sometimes.
1. Schalk is back, bitches.
Technically, Schalk Burger has been back for a while, but up until this last weekend, it’s been unnecessary to iron his cape.
Every aspect you could ever want from Burger was on show against the Crusaders. His tackles, ball carries and ruck cleaning were all on show. Even some deft passing that unlocked the defence and led to an (extremely rare) open play Stomers try.
So, let’s end all the doubt around Burger’s ability to put in performances near his past heights since he came back from injury and illness. After all, the theory that he would be unable to reach those heights again was based on the somewhat questionable premise that this good man could be kept down.
The fact that the Stormers were unable to successfully sit on their lead and got so heartbreakingly close to winning for the first time in Christchurch showed two things about the team. Firstly, it showed that the team has big heart. Secondly, it showed the limitations they have when it comes to being able to beat top teams in this tournament.
Schalk Burger showed the heart, but not the limitations.
2. Who needs Patrick Lambie’s goal kicking when you have Frans Steyn?
While the issue of Frans Steyn’s best position might still be up in the air, surely the issue of who should be doing the goal kicking for the Sharks has been put to bed.
Steyn racked up a return of 7 out of 7 against the Lions. It was an impressive kicking ‘wagon wheel’ too, with 3 penalties around or behind the halfway line and a couple of sideline conversions. Steyn showed that he’s capable of a lot more than 50-60 metre Hail Mary efforts. In fact, when he’s slotting the closer kicks too, there really isn’t anything more to ask from your kicker.
While Patrick Lambie’s flyhalf play has been lauded, the biggest doubts around him have been about his place kicking. If he’s playing alongside Steyn (who can drop kick too, of course), why should Lambie’s goal kicking even be an issue?
This is an issue that doesn’t necessarily have to stay at franchise and provincial level, of course. After all, Steyn was granted a Springbok contract too.
3. The Bulls have a lot of new faces, but the Loftus fixture is still a bitch.
All the derbies in the first few rounds of Super Rugby always seem to have the same effect every year: we spend the first few weeks worrying about how the South African teams competing in a scratchy 80-minute arm wrestle compares pretty unfavourably to the end to end broken play festivals in New Zealand.
In the first few weekends, this young Bulls side looked dismal in the first 2 games and improved against the Lions but still seemed limited. In contrast, the Blues showed many encouraging signs in their opening loss against the Highlanders and showed off all their runners in a rampant win over the Crusaders.
Going into Bulls vs Blues, you’d think that the Blues would have in the very least put up a close game. It wasn’t. 4 tries to 1, 5 log points to nil. This might not be the Bulls team of old, but New Zealand sides still can’t just step off a plane, come to Loftus with their steppy backs and win.
It would be premature to say that this performance proves the Bulls’ playoff credentials or those of the other South African sides, but such a comprehensive win should curb some South African inferiority complexes.
4. Jean de Villiers is starting to get what he wants out of referees.
The Springbok captain doesn’t just make the referees laugh. He makes them think.
The offence of holding opposition players so that they can’t escape from a ruck is a niggly offence that so often goes undetected or unpunished. It’s exactly this type of cynicism that New Zealand sides are ‘credited’ with getting away with week in and week out.
When a held player does lash out and free his arms, it often doesn’t look good and it often gets the brunt of the referee’s whistle where retaliation often trumps the original niggle.
In Christchurch, we had this scenario where Schalk Burger (with a far from angelic disciplinary history) is held and is lashing out to free his arms (and possibly giving a couple of unnecessary lashes once he’s free too). The referee is referring it to the TMO and is looking at the big screen himself while the local crowd boos and chants “Off! Off! Off!”
After Jean de Villiers receives an explanation from Burger as to what happened, he politely points out to the referee why Burger got so touchy in the first place. The result? The referee takes an unusual but laudable stance of penalising the players doing the holding and giving some leeway to the player retaliating.
Long may that continue.
5. Jaco Peyper would be better off just admitting he made a mistake sometimes.
Rugby refereeing often looks like an undesirable career choice and rugby fans often don’t recognise their human right of making mistakes. Unless Jaco Peyper comes up with a better way of dealing with his mistakes, he's going to find it even harder to shed off his nickname Toilet Peyper.
It was a high kick, both Lwazi Mvovo of the Sharks and Stefan Watermeyer of the Lions jumped up and went for the ball. Mvovo was the one that succeeded getting it and went down a bit harder than Watermeyer. Penalty Sharks. Mvovo was tackled in the air, apparently.
It’s a mistake that’s fairly common among referees. When the replay comes, they get shown up for it. When it comes up on the big screen, the referee can see the mistake himself.
After all this, Peyper acknowledged that Watermeyer went for the ball, but said that there is still an issue of safety and the penalty stands.
Eh? You mean no high balls can be contested anymore? No, surely you didn’t mean that? You’re just trying to cover up your mistake because there’s no real reason to award a fairer result like, say, a Sharks scrum, aren’t you?
Just fess up sometimes, Jaco. For your sake.
1) Despite their talk, the Stormers are still unable to change what hasn't been working. 2) Having only one South African team in the playoffs doesn't look impossible. 3) Dan Carter being unavailable for the Crusaders looks like an even bigger deal than expected. 4) Elton Jantjies might have to deal with another season on the fringes of the first team. 5) Kids, chase the penalty kicks.
1. Despite their talk, the Stormers are still unable to change what hasn’t been working.
The cold truth that needs to be faced is that not only are the Stormers bottom of the log after the latest round of Super Rugby, they deserve to be too.
Yes, coming off a first week bye and running into opposition that already have a Super Rugby game under the belt is not ideal, but there is no way that the Stormers should find that 24-point loss against a young Lions side acceptable in terms of the result or the performance.
In terms of the result, it was the biggest losing margin the Stormers have had in this tournament since they lost by 25 points away to the Crusaders in 2007. Scary to think that in order to find a loss as big as the one they’ve just suffered to this young Lions side that are still adjusting to Super Rugby, you have to go back to when they played the most intimidating fixture on the calendar in the dark old days of Kobus van der Merwe’s coaching reign in a season which ended up being the last one the franchise would give him.
In terms of the performance, it was the method of how the side tried to make a comeback in the Lions game that’s the most concerning. Despite all the pre-season talk by Allister Coetzee that they will show more adventure this year, they still retreated into their typecast monotonous ways even though catch-up rugby was so obviously required from early on in the game. It’s almost as if the players just don’t want to make any decisions when they have ball in hand.
Despite boasting a leading defence in the recent past, their blueprint for restricted play when they have ball in hand has been proven to not be enough to win this tournament. The game against the Lions saw a Stormers team with new faces in it that not only repeated their proven shortcomings, but magnified them.
2. Having only one South African team in the playoffs doesn’t look impossible.
It would be wrong to read too much into the results over the first 2 weekends of the tournament. It’s a long season where a lot can change and you only get a better idea of how the top teams compare when they play each other as opposed to weighing up their respective local derbies. It would be presumptuous to forecast where each team will finish on the log at this stage. So let’s get started, shall we?
It’s accepted knowledge that the Sharks should prove to be the shining light of the South African conference this season and their start has done little to suggest otherwise. Their set piece platform and general play was more than enough to dispose of the Hurricanes, which should gives them a great base as they work on making sure they finish off the chances they create in the future. The conference system means 1 South African representative is guaranteed in the playoffs and there seems no need to look further than the Sharks.
Aside from that, it’s looking dicey when it comes to certainties for teams finishing above other New Zealand and Australian sides. The Stormers finished short of the playoffs last year and their squad along with a diabolical opening game makes them look even further off the playoffs this year. The Bulls are dealing with another mass exodus of experience this year and it’s hard to see the new young group learning the Super Rugby ropes in time to mount a playoff challenge.
The Cheetahs just made the playoffs last year against the odds and they might have to repeat the feat to be the second South African representative this year. While they did enough to beat a learning Bulls, they certainly didn’t look like playoff material when they lost to the Lions. Then again, who isn’t losing to the Lions?
3. Dan Carter being unavailable for the Crusaders looks like an even bigger deal than expected.
We all know the Crusaders start slow and have a tendency to launch later, but the Crusaders hit rate of slotting 1 kick out of 7 in the opening game is ridiculous.
After years of seeing Dan Carter slot hundreds of kicks (and years of Andrew Mehrtens doing it before him) no matter how windy it got on the south island, watching Tyler Bleyendaal get substituted for missing all 5 of his first half placekicks on an almost windless day in Napier is a cold reality check to what the Crusaders have to work with now.
While we South Africans get jealous of the central contracting system in New Zealand and how it allows for sabbaticals given to its top stars, it must be rough for the Crusaders after dealing with replacing Richie McCaw last year and dealing with replacing Dan Carter to accept their role in the greater good. The pressure they deal with to end their 6-year trophy drought must test their respect for the system.
4. Elton Jantjies might have to deal with another season on the fringes of the first team.
While the news of Elton Jantjies returning to the Lions for this Super Rugby season was well received, the news of his injury recovery progress is not much more than a footnote on all the fanfare to Marnitz Boshoff.
It’s not only Boshoff's knack for adding 3 points whenever he can, but also his game management which has been so impressive too. He makes it so much harder for teams to keep the ball in the Lions half. His man of the match award was as obvious as his one the week before. He's no doubt been the biggest catalyst for the Lions first 2-game winning streak since 2007.
Not only is it competition for Jantjies to leapfrog, but it’s a different style of play to him. It’s more kicking based and not only will the Lions go into the game at Loftus this weekend fancying their chances of 3 in a row, they look like they can do it with a flyhalf that can out-Bull the Bulls.
If it looks like Braam van Straaten and kicks like Braam van Straaten, it’s probably Marnitz Boshoff.
5. Kids, chase the penalty kicks.
It’s hard to convince schoolboy wings to sprint down every penalty kicked for poles. After being told “You never know. It might hit the post and you’ll get lucky”, it’s hard to keep the motivation up when years of watching the game on TV never shows a wing scoring like that. If anything, TV suggests that placekicks are a good opportunity for a wing to sip Powerade rather than haring after the impossible dream with all the dignity of a dog chasing a car.
All this makes Alofa Alofa’s try on the stroke of halftime for the Waratahs against the Force all the more heart-warming. Now aspiring wingers can go back to chasing the dream. Hopefully Alofa can live up to his name and repeat it.