Super Rugby 2019

Weekend Review

Week One

This first weekend of the 2019 Super Rugby Season featured seven games, two of Friday the 15thand five on Saturday the 16th.

I apologise for the delay in posting this review – I spent my Monday on the road. We do not have a Home Affairs office in our village, or any of our neighbouring villages, so we had to travel almost 90km to get to the nearest office to arrange the renewal of our passports and apply for the new “smart” ID cards being issued in South Africa. It was not a wholly unpleasant experience, the service at the Home Affairs office was quick, friendly, and very efficient, but the road trip did take up most of the day.

2019 

Our post-game reviews will be somewhat condensed in 2019.

I am reducing the number of individual match reviews to one, perhaps two, consolidated reviews per week, with brief notes about each game. 

I will add some comments and thoughts about what I saw during the weekend’s fixtures, mention those players that stood out, but will not be providing play-by-play reviews of the games.

 If I think it is appropriate, I will select one or two games for more extensive discussion if I feel they deserve more detailed analysis and review.

My focus is to provide information, entertainment, food for thought and comments without the boredom factor, if possible. 

Enjoy the season, it is going to be a long one, with plenty of interest as the World Cup gets closer and closer.

Thoughts From The Weekend

Those Missed Kicks!

If ever there was a weekend where the value of an accurate goal kicker was emphsized, it was this first weekend of 2019 Super Rugby!

No less than three of the games were decided by missed kicks! 

All of the Chiefs, the Blues, and the Waratahs lost their games when their goal kickers missed kicks that would, perhaps should, have given them a win.

Think of Blues rookie Harry Plummer, who missed two critical kicks in the final six minutes of his team’s 24-22 loss to the Crusaders at Eden Park. 

Next it was the Waratahs pivot Bernard Foley, dubbed the Iceman, who blew a match winning penalty kick from 30m out and almost straight in front.

While Chiefs fans don’t have a missed kick at the death to lament for their 30-27 loss against to the Highlanders on Friday night, they had two missed kicks earlier in the game that would have given them the win. Brad Weber and Shaun Stevenson left seven points out on the field through misses off the tee

There Is Nothing Quite Like Sheer Pace

At the Bulls’ Loftus Versveld home the sheer blistering pace of Rosko Specman gave the Stormers some very special nightmares. Whether with ball in hand, or chasing one of those teasing little chips or the deeper territorial kicks by his flyhalf, Handré Pollard, Specman was a revelation. There is nothing quite like sheer pace. Specman, who traded the Blitzbok Sevens for the Bulls simply made fools of the Stormers defenders with his stepping and rocket ship acceleration off the mark. His two tries were worth the price of a ticket to Loftus!

Over in New Zealand it was a youngster by the name of Braydon Ennor, playing centre for the Crusaders rather than out on his preferred wing, who provided the glimpse of extreme pace that sets the fans’ juices going. He is not only quick, he has the power and the tactical nous of one much older than his 21-years.

Playing on the right wing for the Sharks, it was S’bu Nkosithat showed the value of sheer pace as he outstripped the Sunwolves’ cover defenders to score in the corner, finishing a blistering run with a classic dive to score.

The Oldies Stand Up

A couple of the older heads in the game also showed their worth this weekend.

Ma’a Nonu, at 36, is definitely back for the Blues, and he seemed to be pretty much as good as he always was, maybe just a half-a-yard slower, but he ran over the top of Richie Mo’unga and tackled Jordan Taufu with a frightening intensity, sending the message out to one and all that he is far from being done with rugby.

Sonny-Bill Williamshas been plagued by injury for much of the last two years, but if he carries on as he did this weekend, with or without the new goatee, he will be notching up another Word Cup call-up in 2019.

Over in OZ a couple of the older men also laid down markers. Quade Coopersurprised one and all (especially yours truly) with a mature and considered game for the Rebels. Yes, he made mistakes, he would not be Quade Cooper if he did not make a couple of silly mistakes, but he kicked three conversions and a penalty in the Rebels 34-27 win in Canberra, and linked up well with his old clubmate Will Genia.. 

The jury is still out on Adam Ashley-Cooper’s return, he did some good things, but sometimes seemed just a little slow. Unfortunately he took a head knock in the final minutes of the game when he was flattened by Hurricanes debutant Du Plessis Kirifi and then failed the HIA that followed. He might not be available next weekend. Time will tell.

Duane Vermeulen made his return to Super Rugby and promptly showed why South Africa need him to remain fit and well for the World Cup. His leadership, his willingness to take the high ball, his tactical nous, and his physical presence made a huge difference in the new-look Bulls outfit. His team mate, Schalk Britswas perhaps less effective in the scrums and set-pieces, but his reading of the game and his ability to be in the right place at the right moment was worth gold to the Bulls in the early exchanges as they set the Stormers up for the knockout-out blows that followed.

Ones To Watch

Akira Ioane – Blues

Seems to be the Blues main attacking threat. Magnificent try in the second half when he rocketed in from 30m. He was all over the field in this first game of the season, mixing aggression with some clever No.8 play across the field. Seems to have put his off-the-ball moments away for now. More of this and he could be something special.

Anton Lienert-Brown – Chiefs

Taking a leadership role in the Chiefs squad this year, he was a force for the Chiefs from the outset. His ability to beat defenders and put supporting players into space led to two of the Chiefs tries, he made all nine of his tackles, and showed he’s comfortable kicking the ball when needed. May just be heading for a regular starting spot for the All Blacks.

Handre Pollard – Bulls

A calm, self-assured display that had class written all over it. Controlled proceedings tactically, converted all eight his goal kicks, made all his tackles, carried the ball with assurance, and released his backline with poetic rhythm. Laid down a marker for any and all wannabes that think they can challenge his supremacy as South Africa’s premier flyhalf. A performance worth the price of the entrance ticket.

Embrose Papier – Bulls

Seems to have spent the off-season polishing his skills and sharpening his focus. He was quick to the ball, accurate in the pass, and his game management has stepped up a couple of notches. On this performance, Faf de Klerk truly has a worthy understudy in the ‘Bok squad.

Lukhanyo Am – Sharks

After missing most of last year after an injury against the All Blacks in Wellington, he was back with a bang, in an impressive performance against the Sunwolves. Some superb line straightening to release his outside backs for the score, carried the ball well, and made 8 tackles. South Africa’s outside centre stocks looking up. 

Quade Cooper –  Rebels

I never thought I would be writing that Quade Cooper is worth watching anymore, but a new level of maturity, a step up in his defensive ability, and his usual skill levels might just make him an outside bet for another Wallaby call-up. Bernard Foley will not be sleeping too comfortably in 2019.

They Must be Worrying:

Waratahs
How did they blow this one? Allowing a try inside the final five minutes, missing a match-winning penalty, an inability to capitalise on so much territorial advantage throughout the game and achieving double figure turnovers? In a home game….  If I was a Waratah supporter, I would be worrying….. 

Robbie Fleck and all Stormers fans.

The Stormers were woeful. Period.

Their lineout was a shambles, their tactical nous appeared to have stayed behind in Cape Town. Their game plan was missing in action.

It was not ring rust! It was a team that looked to be completely out of sorts with itself. They looked flat, and a little startled.

Is it the off-field shenanigans of their administrators? 

Is it poor coaching? 

Is it a bit of both? 

I believe that it is going to be a long hard season for Robbie Fleck, and there will be plenty of pressure for him to go, sooner rather than later. 

Stormers fans must be really worried! I know I am.

Richie Mo’unga

After a stellar season for the Crusaders and an All Black call-up, Richie Mo’unga had a less than ideal start to his year as he missed all three of his shots at goal, missed five tackles, conceded a couple of turnovers and didn’t have much of an impact in the Crusaders attack. This must be a worry, but I have no doubt that he will improve.

David Pocock

The first game, and another failed HIA? How many more head knocks and neck injuries can he take? At some stage he must say to himself “My long term health is more important than all of this…” It must be a real worry for his family, his friends, and all Aussie rugby fans. Maybe the great man’s time is over?

Everyone is Worried about the Referees!

The opening-match of the 2019 competition will be remembered for yet another refereeing controversy. (Just the first of 2019, but we can safely bet on there being many more.) 

The red card shown to the Highlanders’ Sio Tomkinson, is cause for some concern. The entire incident seemed innocuous enough and referee Glen Jackson let it go, but then the TMO, Aaron Paterson interfered, it all ended up with Glen Jackson telling Tomkinson: “You made no attempt whatsoever to wrap him, you have used your shoulder and it’s direct to the head.”

It was not a good decision. Period.

Angus Gardner’s whistle-happy performance in the ‘Tahs-’Canes clash is also cause for concern. When a referee blows a game to death, it becomes a borefest…….

Good Stuff:

The Bulls.
A new-look Bulls team, and I am not talking about the confusion caused by their playing strip of blue, white and red – the colours most usually associated with their opponents, the Stormers and Western Province. I am talking about a Bulls outfit that provided a rugby performance that is as good as it gets as they dismantled a poor Stormers outfit. They targeted the Stormers weaknesses, especially the lineouts, but also their young half-back pairing, and the lack of cohesion in the Stormers team as a whole, causing all manner of confusion and disruption, while producing a tactical masterclass and focussed play. The Bulls played clinical yet quick-fire rugby, to dominate territory and on the scoreboard. They have laid down a marker.

The Lions 

The Lions showed that they could play percentage rugby when it mattered. Putting aside their penchant for open, running rugby, they focussed on doing the basics right, defending with focus and purpose, and making sure that their set-pieces functioned like clockwork. That is why they won in Argentina for the first time in four visits, and that is why you should not be writing them off in 2019. They have shown that they can play “ugly” as well as “pretty” when the moment requires.

FRIDAY’S GAMES

Chiefs 27 vs 30 Highlanders

I nominated this as the game to watch this weekend. Sadly, it did not quite live

up to the star billing I had given it. Too many mistakes, too much ring rust, some strange refereeing and TMO decisions, shocking attempts at goal, terrible passes going astray and weird gaps opening up all over the field all provided for a game that was nowhere near the quality one expects from e New Zealand derby game. 

Consider that no less than 40 passes simply went astray, the ball going nowhere near a recipient. Consider that the two teams contrived to make 30 handling errors,  setting up 157 rucks, and scrumming down 14 times as the ball was in play for just 34 minutes.

Let me add, however, that the game did not lack for entertainment right from the kick off through to the final whistle. It was entertaining, but it was not a game of great quality rugby.

The Chiefs started the game without any of their four first choice pivots, which seemed to put them on the back foot despite the rookie  Orbyn Leger producing a game of unexpected quality for someone who usually plays in the midfield. He showed a deft kicking game and playing some smart football. However, the fact remains that this was an early season hit-up with little to suggest that either of these teams will be challenging for the title when the end of the season comes around.

The real talking points from this game are a disallowed try and a late red card shown to reserve back Sio Tomkinson, who had scarcely arrived on the field when he was sent back off it with 15 minutes to go in the match and his side trailing on the scoreboard.

He was shown the red for a collision off the ball with Chiefs forward Brodie Retallick, which was deemed a no-arms tackle by referee Glen Jackson.

There didn’t look to be a lot in the tackle, certainly not worth anything even vaguely close to a yellow card, but after the match officials sent the incident upstairs for a review, the decision was made that it was a red card offence.

It was one of two refereeing decisions that caused a bit of dismay amongst spectators. The first controversial refereeing decision of the season arrived just 3 minutes into the season, when Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman appeared to have scored the first try of the Super Rugby season. Glen Jackson sent it upstairs, saying that the on-field decision was a try, only to have TMO Aaron Patterson rule the effort to have been held up. My own view of the incident was that the TMO got it wrong. 

Not a great start to the season for the match officials, then?

Not a great game, but entertaining enough.

How Accurate Was My Prediction?

My season did not get off to a great start. I had predicted that the Chiefs, at home, would win by 12 points. I was wrong.

Brumbies 27 vs  34 Rebels

Once again, my predicted result was way off the mark. I suggested that the Brumbies, at home, would win this one, but the earlier trend set by the Highlanders continued as yet another visiting team won the game.

This was not a game that set the world alight. In my preview I commented that Australian derbies are often dour wrestling matches, and this one did not rise above that status.

Some Aussies might get excited about the return of Quade Cooper, or the arrival of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Karmichael Hunt as a midfield pairing, but my own view was that this was a very ordinary, often mediocre game of rugby.

Consider that the two teams managed to carry the ball just 195 times between the two of them, for 743 meters in total, with 33 handling errors and no less than 32 passes going astray. Plenty of kicking, no less than 38 kicks in the game, when the ball was in play for just 30 minutes. Add in 120 rucks, 23 lineouts, and 12 scrums and the entire game was a display of static, slow rugby.

Yes, the game did produce a try-fest with 9 tries between the two teams, 4 for the Brumbies and 5 for the Waratahs, but that was more a reflection of poor defence and the Brumbies forwards running out of gas in the second half, than it was the result of great, enterprising and entertaining rugby.

Sadly, it was not a game that was going to attract those TV viewers back to their couches and the fans to the stadium….

How Accurate Was My Prediction?

Nope, got this one wrong too! Thought the Brumbies would be better at home, they weren’t.

Blues 22 vs 24 Crusaders

Now that was a game worth watching!

The Blues made a huge fist of it, and were desperately unlucky not to bag a win against the defending champions.

This was a game filled with passion, pace, persistence, pressure, and those three essentials for a good game of rugby, Space, Surprise, and Speed. For long stretches of the game the Blues had the Crusaders scrambling to close the holes in their defences, a task which they did remarkably well.

The difference between the two teams was found in the two penalty tries awarded to the Crusaders by Nick Briant. If it were not for those two penalty tries, the Blues actually outscored the mighty Crusaders 3 tries to 2

I must add that I believe that Briant got the call 100% correct in both those penalty tries. 

When Tom Robertson brought down the Crusader maul on the verge of scoring, it was a deliberate attempt to prevent a try, and he got his just deserts with a yellow card and a penalty try against his team.

Late in the second half the Crusader scrum turned the pressure up a couple of notches and were showing the Blues scrum back over their tryline. A pushover try seemed a dead certainty until the Blue scrum crumbled, collapsed, and stopped the Crusader momentum. It has to be a penalty try.

Those moments cost the Blues the game, but should not detract from a performance in which they laid down a marker for the rest of the year. The carried the ball with a sense of purpose long missing from the Auckland based team, making 468 meters in 133 carries. In contrast they shut the Crusaders down, allowing the visitors to make just 235 meters with the ball in hand, with a minimal 61 carries in the entire game, probably the lowest number of carries made by the ’Saders in the last 10 years! The Blues passed the ball 145 tines and made 10 offloads, the Crusaders just 83 passes and a single offload. The Crusaders just did not get the room they wanted to play with the ball in hand.

The Crusaders were forced to make 182 tackles, a whole 102 more than the Blues were required to make – at just that one little statistic tells the story of the game.

Somehow, whatever the stats say, it was the Crusaders that still found the way to win the game. That is why they are champions. Period.

How Accurate Was My Prediction?

I suggested that you would be a bit silly to bet against the Crusaders winning. I suggested a 10 point margin. I never thought it would be as close as two points!

Waratahs 19 vs 20 Hurricanes

This was not a great game of rugby. Two teams, so obviously ring-rusty and not fully match fit, that stuttered and stumbled around the field while referee Angus Gardner seemed intent on blowing the pea out of his whistle, mainly to the benefit of the home side, the Waratahs.

The stats will tell you that this was a game where the two teams made a huge total of 237 tackles between them, 123 by the ‘Tahs and 114 by the visiting Hurricanes. In the process Mr Gardiner handed out 26 penalties and at least four “formal” warnings to the two teams.

Referee Gardner’s whistle dominated much of the match, including in the first half as 14 penalties were evenly shared between the two sides. Both sides lived on and over the offside line with their defensive line speed, but Gardner was very quick to blow any infringement at ruck time, leading to a stuttering first 40 minutes. 

At times, especially towards the end of the game, it seemed just a little as if Mr Gardner was trying to find a way to give the Waratahs the game. He handed Bernard Foley the opportunity to take the lead with just 2 minutes left in the game when he pinged the Hurricane scrum for the only time in the match – a set-piece where they had dominated all afternoon and had squeezed four penalties out of the Waratahs. Quite what the penalty was for remains a mystery but, somehow, the Iceman melted and missed the kick from 30m out and almost straight in front – the kick that should have won the game for the home side.

Not done yet, in the next two minutes Mr Gardner found two more reasons to penalise the Hurricanes, but that did not help the Waratahs all that much, they still butchered their final lineout, set up within striking distance of the ‘Canes goal line. The ball bounced off Ned Hanigan’s hands as he jumped for it, and the ‘Canes quickly kicked it into touch. (One of the Aussie commentator promptly suggested that a Hurricane hand on Hanigan’s shoulder had prevented him from catching the ball, but that was simply an Aussie commentator being a typical Aussie commentator. Jingoist in the extreme. There was no hand, and the ball actually went through Hanigan’s grasp. He should have caught it, just as Foley should have goal the kick two minutes earlier.)

The Waratahs have only themselves to blame, they certainly had a friendly referee out on the field.

In truth, the Hurricanes will acknowledge that they got away with one. The could, perhaps should have lost this one.

Of course, their win could also have been more emphatic. Ardie Savea crossed the line for what would have been his second try after a period of intense pressure on the ‘Tahs line, but the try was disallowed after referee Gardner reviewed a replay, which showed substitute Du’Plessis Kirifi driving Savea towards the line with his forearm shielding his head, an arm that went to the throat of Michael Hooper as the latter came in to try and stop the drive. Some would say that Kirifi was doing exactly what every coach tries to teach a player to do, but Mr Gardner and his TMO decided to penalise him for making contact with Hooper’s throat. (My own thought about the incident was that it was avoidable, by Hooper! He went in high!)

Just four minutes later winger Ben Lam went close to scoring, bumping off three defenders down the left wing, but put his hand in touch before he grounded the ball.

If those two tries had stood, that was a ten point, perhaps 14 point, spread and no time for the Waratahs to come back.

Kirifi, named Du’Plessis in honour of Springbok great Morne du Plessis, did get the try that won the game for the Hurricanes just five minutes from fulltime.

It was a stuttering performance by both teams, with the Hurricanes hampered by the loss of replacement flyhalf James Marshall, who made his return to the Hurricanes by replacing starting 10 Fletcher Smith. Marshall’s game lasted just 5 minutes before he picked up what looked like a serious injury. TJ Perenara had to take the flyhalf position, and looked distinctly uncomfortable in that role.

It was a somewhat stangnant game, full of errors and silly decision, stuttering along until Mr Gardner was forced to blow the final whistle. (I think his whstle was grateful for the rest.)

How Accurate Was My Prediction?

I suggested that the Hurricanes would win, but for all the reasons that they did not reveal on the field of play. Somehow they did win.

Sunwolves 10 vs  45 Sharks

A demolition job, as the Sharks completely dominated and dismantled the Sunwolves.

It was a slow start, but that was not unexpected, considering that it was the first game of the season, and played in the unfamiliar surroundings of an echoingly empty stadium in Singapore. 30ᴼC heat and high humidity ensured that it was not going to be a high-tempo helter-skelter rugby match.

The Sharks outscored the Sunwolves by 6 tries to 1, and showed plenty of quality and tactical nous as they weathered the extremely quick rush defence of the Sunwolves and shut down Sunwolf attempts at attack with solid defence of their own, together with some good scrambling.

I am not sure whether the Sharks can take much from this game, it was more akin to a knock-about game against a local club side than an intense Super Rugby clash, but it did allow the Sharks the opportunity to fine tune their game and, importantly, to find their feet while building match fitness. 

How Accurate Was My Prediction?

I said: The Sharks, by plenty. And so it was.

Bulls 40 vs…………………………………  3 Stormers

The space between those two names in the title above reflects the difference between these two teams on the field of play.

One team played focussed, clinical rugby, with serious intent and purpose. The other did not.

My own fears, expressed in my preview, that the turmoil in the back-rooms at the Stormers’ headquarters would impact on the team appear to have been spot on.  We saw a team that was clearly struggling to get fully focussed on the job at hand and strangely flat.

Add the fact that the team’s pre-game preparations were disrupted by problems in the traffic on the way to the stadium, and the Stormers looked and seemed to be a team thoroughly distracted and at odds with themselves.

Let me not take anything away from the Bulls’ performance. They were as good as any Bulls outfit I have watched in a very long time. They were on the field to play rugby, and would probably have given every other team in the competition a serious headache.

Some of the Bulls had a really good day at the office. Handré Pollard was sublime, Embrose Papier played close to his immense potential, Duane Vermeulen was as good as only he can be, Jesse Kriel was better than we have seen at this level for a long time. Warrick Gelant seemed focussed and less inclined to try and beat everybody all by himself, although he still produced his usual double-pump-faked passes and unnecessary jinks and goose-stepping. 

Rosko Specman’s pace and commitment would have sent a message to Rassie Erasmus too!

Lood de Jager stood up to be counted, both as captain and as a player.

Just a pity the Stormers did not pitch up.

How Accurate Was My Prediction?

I said the Bulls would win, but that it would be close. I was wrong, insomuch that the win was nowhere near being a close one!

Jaguares 16 vs  25 Lions

I thought the Lions would try and run the Jaguares off their feet. 

I also thought that this might be a bit dangerous as the Jaguares thrive on attacking out of broken play, and are specialists at disrupting established game plans and tactics.

The Lions chose to play this game closer and more conservatively. Ugly rugby, if you like, but it was winning rugby as they slowly but surely ground the Argentineans into their home turf and secured their first ever win in South America.

I also thought that the Argentineans played right into the Lions’ hands by trying to match them up front, something that their forward pack has not been able to do in the past.

It was not a spectacular game of rugby. It was not a hugely entertaining game of rugby either. It was early season rugby, with plenty of mistakes and handling inaccuracies. The Lions just made less mistakes than their hosts, and played with a purpose and focus that ensured their win.

Nobody really stood out in a way that is worthy of special mention. (Andries Coetzee still does not pass the ball.)  It was simply a good, solid performance and a win away from home for the Lions.

How Accurate Was My Prediction?

I suggested it would be close,  around 6 points. It was a 9 point win.

My Overall Score:

My overall score? 5 correct predictions out of 7 is not too bad for the first weekend of the season.