Three days & nights of Super Rugby, in the middle of a southern hemisphere summer! That’s hard work, but that’s what we’ve just seen. The standard varied from match to match; sometimes from half to half. Generally though, all games were marked by huge commitment and physicality.
I had thought, throughout the Heineken Cup rounds and the current Six-Nations Championship, that the north had caught up in this vital quality of physicality, but I’ve had to revise my thinking. Remembering the brutality of the winning Springbok performance over England a few months back, I was most interested to see if the ‘senior’ northern teams had taken the cue. Ireland v France, just one week back, was a physical game – good news, I thought. But I had forgotten. Even though these were the first competitive matches for these players for many months, there they were, immediately back hammering one another, as if only a week had passed.
The standard was not great at times, but most games were seriously fast and furious. The defences across the board were powerful and punishing, the impacts spiteful at times. Most games featured frequent periods of multi- phase play and not your ‘old-style, voluntary-tackle phases’, which characterised the Brumbies play some years ago. These were fair-dinkum, ‘let me at ‘em’, phases. The hot, humid weather for most games took its toll on players, with cramps a common second half occurrence, but the tempo never slacked.
Accuracy was the most common absent quality – perhaps unsurprisingly. Accuracy is achieved by quality technique – which can be honed on the practice pitch – and instinctive reaction. I suppose that it’s reasonable to deduce that the instincts will become more finely tuned in the next week or two. Exceptions, perhaps, were the Waratahs – although their performance was due more to individual brilliance – the Crusaders, in their first half, and the Blues, in their second. All teams seemed willing to ‘play’ and this intent is the first component required for any top quality performance. If this remains, then the next few months should be a feast for us fans.
The best winning performances came from the Waratahs, Blues and Brumbies. They all showed pace, skill and, importantly, patience. The Waratahs were away to the Melbourne Rebels, for the latter’s first ever Super Rugby game. The Rebels staging of the match, which included a mid-week, city luncheon for 1,200 people, was absolutely first class. Their (AAMI Park) stadium, on the banks of the Yarra River, is world class, with the playing surface extraordinarily good. All are confident that on-field performance will follow. The Waratahs defence was, maybe, the best on show all weekend, but a comparison with the quality of opposition attack may be a consideration. However, their back three, as anticipated, stole the show. Foden, Ashton and Cueto have been fantastic for England, but these three Waratahs – Beale, Mitchell and Turner – are at least as good. Foden, for example, is great, but Kurtley Beale does things that others cannot even dream about.
The Crusaders started with pace and enterprise and their execution was good enough for their taciturn coach, Todd Blackadder, to mention during the half-time interview. They had so much the better of the half that early support for the Blues for this year’s title seemed misplaced. However, their second-half resurgence for their win gave considerable weight to their supporters’ claims.
This was, let us not forget, a Crusaders team without Richie McCaw and with Dan Carter unusually astray with his goal-kicking. We will hear more from the Crusaders in the coming weeks. For me, the factor which may begin soon to worry the Crusaders, and the All Blacks, for that matter, was the rare, subdued performance from Brad Thorn. Perhaps time is catching up with him, after all; it’s definitely caught up with Tana!
The Sharks and the Bulls both looked good enough, but not great. Perhaps the most courageous performance of the round belonged to the John Mitchell coached Lions. They were relentlessly bullied by the Bulls – what a surprise, I hear you say – but fought back amazingly to score 15 unanswered second half points. They scored three tries to two, but could not bridge the extra four points. Perhaps, they will not be the easy-beats that many have been predicting.
I know that it’s still early days and that England, France and maybe a full-strength Ireland will challenge in October, but my long-range prediction is still – and I know that I’m backing favourites – that the Southern Hemisphere big three will fight out the title.