Cape Town – Perhaps Super Rugby will prove as resilient as the Currie Cup has been in recent years ... bash it repeatedly over the head with debatable changes, but somehow it will stay on its feet.
On show in a chunky nine-game format over a single round for the first time, the opening weekend failed rather “miserably” to prove that it has become structurally too cumbersome for its own good.
The overall calibre of play was extremely pleasing and, if anything, as it began roughly parallel to the northern hemisphere’s annual pride and joy – the Six Nations – it only re-emphasised that the south is firmly where it’s still at for vibrancy, pace and skill factor.
Several Australasian sides started with big statements of intent, too, but at least from a South African point of view the Stormers and Sharks, particularly, served notice that they ought to be credible candidates for berths in the knockout phase further down the line.
The Lions and Cheetahs were decent for good stretches of their respective matches as well, even if they had contrasting fortunes against the debut-making Sunwolves and Jaguares, with the Jo’burgers earning a bonus-point victory in Tokyo and Franco Smith’s charges edged out in a 67-point proper thriller by the Argentineans in Bloemfontein.
The competition’s newest pair of additions provided robust evidence that they will bring a certain constructive, cultural difference to the tournament, rather than drag its gravitas down.
On a more negative side, second-time entrants the Kings seemed to confirm, as they were whipped 43-8 in Port Elizabeth by the Sharks, that they will be even more vulnerable than they were in a gutsy first campaign in 2013.
Not helping was that an ominously sparse crowd turned out for their season-opening coastal derby, probably dispirited by the enduring turmoil behind the scenes at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Eastern Cape-born Springbok prop of the early post-isolation era, Keith Andrews (@KeithKandrews), lamented on Twitter as they slid toward a six-tries-to-one loss:“Going to be a long, long season. You can’t go to war with pellet guns. Crowd numbers down, players’ heads down ...”
Minor consolation was that the Kings were stubborn in the first half, disrupting the Sharks’ quest for fluency and composure and staying within range, only seven points down, as the sides headed for the tunnel.
But the floodgates opened pretty speedily after that, as the Sharks discovered a brand of ball-in-hand constructiveness seldom seen from them in a couple of years in the competition.
Helped by the assertiveness of their loose trio -- established forager Marcell Coetzee and the exciting, muscular Du Preez twins, Dan and Jean-Luc – the visitors began to punch big holes in the Kings’ defence, giving the likes of Willie le Roux, Paul Jordaan and Lwazi Mvovo scope for some thrilling, mazy raids in the back division.
In the headline SA clash at an atmospheric Newlands shortly afterwards, the Stormers and Bulls went at each other for the first 40 minutes in the remorseless manner you expect from the time-honoured south v north grudge meeting.
But once a third member of the rugby-rich Du Preez family, flyhalf Robert, had broken the game’s try drought beyond the 50th minute with a clever snipe through a gap, the home side turned the screws very clinically to run away with things and add a cherry-on-top bonus point.
After surprising their fancied opponents with their scrummaging resilience in the first half – sometimes it was a bit more than that, too – the Bulls tellingly fell away horribly in that department once they replaced their first-choice props, Boks Trevor Nyakane and Marcel van der Merwe.
By sharp contrast, once the Stormers infused JC Janse van Rensburg and Frans Malherbe, they got a pronounced second wind themselves and the whole pack seemed hugely galvanised; the third try was achieved with one of the most “runaway bulldozer” rolling mauls you may ever witness.
The rebuilding Bulls also got an uncomfortable reminder on the day of the gargantuan void left by Victor Matfield in both lineout management and personal mastery – they had several of their own throw-ins pinched, primarily by a bristling Eben Etzebeth who oozed snarling intent in all facets of play.
Based on the strength of their first-round showings, both the Stormers and Sharks should be fancied to go two from two when they play the Cheetahs (away) and Jaguares (home) respectively next Saturday ...
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Crusaders v Blues, 08:35; Brumbies v Waratahs, 10:45. Saturday: Chiefs v Lions, 06:15; Highlanders v Hurricanes, 08:35; Reds v Force, 10:45; Bulls v Rebels, 15:00; Cheetahs v Stormers, 17:05; Sharks v Jaguares, 19:10.
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