The first round of the Super 15 season is now done and dusted. One thing that certainly became clear from last weekend’s fixtures is that this is going to be a season of close games. And with close games – and we shouldn’t forget that all but one game in the round were decided by less than 6 points – come both upsets and edge of the seat rugby.
In an exhilarating round of rugby with a number of highlights some of the best moments included:
- The opening match of the round was an absolute bottler that was not decided until the Blues top recruit Piri Weepu’s last minute field goal attempt was charged down and the Crusaders got over the line;
- Goal posts being rattled in Canberra as both the Brumbies and the Force did their best to lose a game that they both could have won;
- Young Elton Jantjies kicking a record nine penalties to get the perennial strugglers, the Lions, over the line against the Cheetahs;
- The local derbies, particularly those in South Africa, were very hard fought affairs with feeling that is likely to flow into the return derby meetings;
- And last but nowhere near least, Dom Shipperley’s after the siren try broke the hearts of all Waratahs players and fans and showed the absolute folly of player sledging before the game is finished: Tom Carter I am looking at you.
Whilst there are some teams that have pushed themselves to the front of the queue of likely finishers in the finals, it is too early to start picking out the favourites in each pool. That can be a topic of divisiveness next week!
Onto this week’s round, which begins in Hamilton, NZ with the Chiefs hosting the Blues at Waikato Stadium on Friday night. In the match of the round last week the Blues were narrow losers to a depleted Crusaders outfit. Their start to the game was frankly electric – and if the Blues can put that together for a full 80 minutes, they will be tough to beat this season. The Chiefs on the other hand were more than a bit disappointing against the Highlanders. They were in control of the game for the bulk of and still found a way to lose it by 4 points and sadly picking up a few key injuries. I still consider the Blues to be, presently, the strongest team from New Zealand. That, coupled with the fact that they will be looking to rectify their false start from last week, makes me think the Blues will win this battle of the North Island neighbours: Blues by 7
The first Australian game of the round will give us our first look at the big spending Rebels (on a bye last week), who host the Waratahs at Melbourne’s AAMI stadium. The Waratahs will no doubt be smarting from their literally last-second loss to the Reds in Round 1. The fact that the Waratahs lost the game took some gloss off what was a solid performance by an injury ravaged team, which managed to keep last year’s champions try-less until the 80th minute of the game. Berrick Barnes has again been ruled out for the Waratahs which does present a big loss. The Rebels have spent up big in the off season and have, in effect, bought a very slick back line. With luck and the combined skill in this lineup, assuming the leaking defence from last year has been fixed, a number of teams will be cut to shreds this season. After much consideration of how this game might go I have found it impossible to split the Rebels’ home ground advantage and slick backline talent on the one hand and the Waratahs’ doughty defence and solid kicking. That being the case I am tipping that this game might be a tie
We then turn our gaze to Johannesburg with John Mitchell’s young Lions side hosting the travelling Hurricanes. As noted above, the Lions defeated the Cheetahs off the back of the boot of their young fly half. Of concern however to John Mitchell will be the fact that the Lions did not manage to score a try in that winning effort. The Hurricanes lost last week to the Stormers, as most tipsters predicted, however there were some obvious improvements to come from that loss. The Hurricanes’ discipline was woeful: 3 yellow cards and a penalty try would cruel the winning prospects of any side in the competition and will have been the main area focused on by coach Mark Hammett. The statistics weigh heavily against a Lions win with the Hurricanes having won 9 of their last 10 games against the Lions. I expect the Hurricanes to find their feet in South Africa in this game and to win in another tight tussle that could be decided by the boot rather than be enterprising attack: Hurricanes by 6
We get underway on Saturday night with the battle of the South Island rivals – the Highlanders and the Crusaders. The Highlanders host this game in Dunedin at their new stadium. Both sides are coming off narrow victories from Round 1 and both could probably consider themselves lucky to have secured those victories. Obviously the Highlanders will be looking to christen their new home with a win, particularly against their South Island rivals. Viewers can expect them to play with plenty of passion and, as always when they face the Crusaders, they will punch above their weight. The Crusaders did what they seem to do better than any other team in Super Rugby: they find a way to win in nearly all circumstances. They have not dominated Super Rugby for so long for no good reason: they are again the class outfit of the tournament. That said, McCaw and Carter will not be back for a while and that fact, coupled with the opening of the new stadium for the Highlanders make me lean toward the Highlanders in an upset: Highlanders by 6
The 2011 champions the Reds will be hosting the Force at Lang Park on the year’s second Saturday night, in front of what is expected to be one of many sell out crowds for the Reds this year. Having close to 30000 members would have been unheard of for the Reds some 3 years ago, but now it is a reality and the Force can expect to face what will no doubt be a hostile reception from the champion’s passionate fans. The Reds, with a new number 10, did not really click in attack but again found a way to win when most pundits (and some NSW players) had counted them out. The Reds possess a dominant and agile forward pack and their backline will be much better for the run. The Force on the other hand were quite disappointing against the Brumbies in their opening effort of the season and will need to improve in all aspects to challenge the Reds. This is particularly so in defence: if the Force do not stifle the Reds backline, they are likely to be on the receiving end of a try fest. All things considered I expect to see the Reds win with the ‘4 try’ bonus point in this one: Reds by 23
In the first of two games in South Africa that will finish off the round (early Sunday morning AEDT), the Cheetahs host the Bulls at Bloemfontein. The Bulls are coming off a confidence building first up victory and possess in Morne Steyn a kicking machine of rare high class. The fact is, the guy is a freak and will punish any side ill disciplined enough to give away penalties within 55 metres of their goal posts. That fact alone should be worrying for the Cheetahs whose ill discipline last week saw them give up 9 penalties to the Lions in a game they eventually lost. If the Cheetahs are similarly ill disciplined against the Steyn-led Bulls, they are going to get hammered. Ill discipline aside, the Cheetahs historically play their best rugby at home in the city of roses and will pose a stout test for the Bulls despite not having bested them since the Cheetahs return to SuperRugby in 2006. The Steyn factor is enough for me to go with the Bulls in this one: Bulls by 6
The final game could well be the match of the round with the Sharks visiting the Stormers in Cape Town at Newlands Stadium. The Stormers got off to a flying start against the travelling and ill disciplined Hurricanes last week and recorded the biggest winning margin of the round. The principal negative to come out of the game for the Stormers? The loss of their inspirational captain Schalk Burger to an injury that will keep him out of action for over a month. The Sharks conversely were more than a bit disappointing against the Bulls, aside from scoring a cracking try, and will need to lift significantly to best the Stormers at home: the loss of Burger aside. Ultimately, I think this will be an intriguing game that could come down to how much the loss of Burger affects the play of the Stormers. I am backing the Stormers to lift and think they will win in another close game: Stormers by 2
Match of the Round: The last game of the round, Stormers v Sharks, presents as a cracker with two long-time rivals ripping into each other for 80 minutes. Australian viewers: set your alarms for 4 a.m. Sunday and get up for this one.
Bet of the Round: You cannot go wrong having a wager on the Bulls to be the first points scorers against the Cheetahs with a penalty. When that market opens: be Bullish!