This year the Foreign Exchange has had a bit of a makeover. So here is round one’s instalment with reports on featured games and and an overview on of the remaining games.
ROUND 1 AS IT HAPPENED
Highlanders v Chiefs
The Chiefs have opened their season with a win, downing the Highlanders 24-15 in a thriller in Dunedin.
The Highlanders dominated the opening exchanges and scored first through a Lima Sopoaga penalty but it was the Chiefs who scored the first try, winger James Lowe latching onto a wayward Aaron Smith pass 45m out and powering to the line after 10 minutes. Lowe repeated the dose from closer range after 17 minutes, burgling a Waisake Naholo offload for a 14-3 lead very much against the weight of possession and territory.
Ben Smith suffered a worrying, match-ending head knock after a midair collision with Damian McKenzie and failing his head injury assessment. Highlanders and All Black coaching and medical staffs will be sweating on his prognosis, such is his importance to both teams.
Two more Sopoaga penalties after 30 and 39 minutes cut the half time deficit to five points but the Highlanders would have been bitterly disappointed to be trailing, having enjoyed 60% possession and 70% territorial advantages.
Half time: Chiefs 14-9 Highlanders
Two minutes after the restart the Chiefs won a lineout inside the Highlanders 22 and worked a nifty “tramlines” move that gave Aaron Smith no chance of stopping hooker Hika Elliott. Aaron Cruden added the extras from the touchline and at 21-9 one felt the Highlanders were all but done for the night.
Urged on by their vocal fans (although, this being a University city, there were plenty of Chiefs supporters in evidence as well) the Highlanders mounted wave after wave of attacks but were either repulsed by rock-solid Chiefs defence or let down by poor handling and at times option taking.
Sopoaga’s fourth and fifth penalties kept them in the game but Cruden’s first pushed the lead out to 24-15 with 12 minutes remaining, a lead that proved insurmountable and denied the Highlanders a losing bonus point.
The Highlanders will have to be concerned that, with so much possession and territory, they were unable to score other than from the tee. The Chiefs, meanwhile, will surely be buoyed by “winning ugly” on the back of their defence and one has to wonder how good they could be given more ball. Future opponents should be worried.
Chiefs 24 (James Lowe (two) & Hika Elliott tries, Aaron Cruden three conversions, one penalty)
Highlanders 15 (Lima Sopoaga five penalties).
Sunwolves 17-83 Hurricanes
The Sunwolves were expected to be no match for their first-ever kiwi opponents and so it proved. The defending champions ran in seven tries to lead 45-5 at the break, and six more in the second half to complete the rout. To their credit the Sunwolves never entirely gave up and bagged three tries themselves but this was a humiliating result in front of a good-sized and supportive crowd.
Cheetahs 25-28 Lions
After a forgettable first half ended at 6-6 the match roared into life in the second, the Cheetahs jumping out to a series of narrow leads but unable to pull away. A penalty try finally saw the Lions take a short-lived lead after 68 minutes but it took a 79th minute Rohan Janse van Rensburg try in the corner, his second for the day, to secure the win.
Kings 26-39 Jaguares
The Jaguares trailed early but rallied to lead 19-12 at the break and pulled away in the second half to win comfortably but without a bonus point. Their trademark discipline issues were again in evidence with Felipe Ezcurra (cynical play) and Matias Moroni (foot trip) binned inside the last 10 minutes, reducing the Jaguares to 13 men.
Stormers v Bulls
The Stormers have taken the early lead in the race for the Africa 1 automatic quarterfinal berth with a 37-24 victory over the Bulls.
A massacre looked to be on the cards as the Stormers jumped out to a 24-0 lead at the break with tries to fullback SP Marais – a 90-metre stunner – after 15 minutes, wing Cheslin Kolbe after 29, and No. 8 Nizaam Carr on the stroke of halftime.
This was the fast and open rugby coach Robbie Fleck wanted his team to play last year, the difference being that this year their skill levels appear to have increased greatly, perhaps due to the hiring of former Blues assistant Paul Feeney.
No. 8 Hanro Liebenberg got the Bulls on the board immediately after half time, capitalising on a clever Handre Pollard chip-and-chase to score in the corner. The Stormers struck back through flanker Siya Kolisi who tip-toed along the sideline to score, having won a crucial turnover moments earlier, to restore the lead to 24 points.
Bulls halfback Rudy Paige put his prop Pierre Schoeman over with a perfectly timed pop-pass and they scored again just after the three-quarter mark through Hanro Liebenberg’s second try. The Stormers responded with a try to wing Dillyn Leyds that took the lead to 37-17 with just 13 minutes remaining.
What little hope the Bulls might have had disappeared with the sin binning of replacement prop Lizo Gqoboka for killing the ball at a ruck, but they did get the ninth and final try of the match through replacement halfback Piet van Zyl from a tap penalty just after full time.
An entertaining match and if the Stormers continue to play this (for them) new and exciting brand of footy they’ll go far in the competition. The Bulls played their part, too, and have given future opponents plenty to think about with their second half revival.
Stormers 37 (Marais, Kolbe, Carr, Kolisi, Leyds tries, Du Plessis three conversions, two penalties).
Bulls 24 (Liebenberg (two), P Schoeman, Van Zyl tries, Pollard, T Schoeman conversions).
Round 2 fixtures:
Fri 3 March Chiefs v Blues, Hamilton
Sat 4 March Highlanders v Crusaders, Dunedin
Sat 4 March Sunwolves v Kings, Singapore
Sun 5 March Stormers v Jaguares, Cape Town
Sun 5 March Cheetahs v Bulls, Bloemfontein