Hands up all those who still think the Super 14 is a two-team competition after the Blues lost the skirmish of the unbeaten sides in Durban.
Maybe the series is still a two-way duel, just the names have changed with the Sharks joining the Crusaders as the only serious contenders for this year’s title.
Wynne Gray writes in the NZ Herald that it was a weekend where a number of impressions were pricked, such as the mistaken notion that Bakkies Botha and Ma’a Nonu had given away their villainy or that the Hurricanes and Chiefs would offer evidence they had retooled their strategies.
And the inkling the Blues could walk out of Durban with a win against the Sharks went the same way as the idea most of the Highlanders’ backline would challenge for All Black places.
For three rounds the pace-setting Blues and Crusaders played a different quality of rugby than any other side with their pace and cohesion sending out warning bells about a 2008 final in Aotearoa. That was presumptuous, as any coach would caution.
Certainly Sharks coach Dick Muir latched onto a comment or two from the Blues about the strength of their forward play and conviction they could close out their tour of South Africa with maximum points. Even if the Sharks were given some motivational ammunition, there was a divide between what they had offered on an undefeated trip through three games and the production from the Blues and Crusaders.
If that theory was allowed to run rampant it offered the verdict that the Super 14 crown would return to New Zealand soil after a year’s vacation in South Africa.
Take your pick, the theory went, but the April 25 conflict between those sides in Christchurch would be a real pointer to the next inscription on the silverware.
The shock to that speculation was the way the Sharks squirted out to a 19-0 lead against the Blues without having to do much. The Blues hurt themselves, they played with an uneasy agitation and when they finally got their act together, were unable to overhaul the home side.
The improved showing of the Sharks and also the Stormers and Cheetahs against untidy rivals, revealed the South African sides were warming to their work, had sifted through some methods to make the law variations work for them and were on the rise.
It was clear the Blues could not fathom the breakdown rulings from referee Brett Bowden and coach David Nucifora saluted the way the Sharks stuck to their gameplan. But he also observed they had an arduous roadtrip in front of them.
In successive weeks offshore, they play the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Brumbies, Waratahs and Crusaders while the Blues arrive home late tonight after a three-game stretch in the Republic which earned them two maximum point wins and a bonus-point defeat.
Crystal ball-gazing is as hazardous as running on black ice but the leading quartet after this weekend look likely semifinalists if their playmakers stay healthy. The order may change but the series has the feel of a four-team tournament.Tweet