Well, guys and gals, the first weekend of het 2009 Super 14 is behind us and what an interesting one it turned out to be. We all thought the competition would be close this year and with a staggering 6 out of 7 games being one by fewer than 7 points, that does indeed seem to be the case. I was fortunate enough to watch two matches in full and half of another, so here are my thoughts based on what I saw.
Firstly, to the Lions. Wow – now that was some exciting rugby! For a South African team to look so powerful, so fluid and so well-conditioned in the first round of this competition is something out of the ordinary. Pity they were so busy playing good-looking rugby that they almost nearly forgot to win the match! There were solid individual performances all over the park and a fair amount of really constructive play. The killer instinct, though, is sorely lacking and having had the Cheetahs completely on the ropes and (one would have thought) dead and buried after 55-minutes, the Lions proceeded to fall asleep and fall back to a woefully-executed kicking strategy, which almost lost them the match.
One gets the feeling that they need one or two more cool heads in that team, just to see them turn a good 50 minutes into a solid 80.
Their pack was all fire and brimstone, with Heinke van der Merwe destroying two Free State tightheads without seemingly breaking a sweat. Both hookers, Willie Wepenar and Hansie van Dyk were prominent on the drive and in broken play, but their lineouts were an utter shambles and something they’ll need to get right. Baywatch Grobbelaar was his typical self, but it was big Willem Alberts and American import Todd Clever who really stood out among the loose forwards. The backline as a whole did very well, with Earl Rose, Jacque Fourie, Ashwin Willemse and particularly Henno Mentz, having great games.
Andre Pretorius showed once again that his inconsistency is his Achilles heel. He came on in the unfamiliar position of inside centre (one wonders why) and proceeded to kick three balls out on the full before seeming to “calibrate his boot” and put over a cheeky drop which swung the momentum back in his team’s favour. He was sublime and ridiculous in equal parts, as ever and for the Lions’ sake, I hope they persist with Rose at flyhalf for at least the next few matches while Petoors finds his groove.
As for the Cheetahs, well, let’s just say they weren’t great. Their pack was bullied and although Juan Smith tried hard throughout, ultimately bested up-front. Their halfbacks were directionless, their centres defensively frail and it was only really the wing pair of Bjorn Basson and Danwel Demas who had a halfway reasonable outing on Friday night. It’s going to be a long tour and an even longer season for the boys from Bloem.
I also caught the first half of the Hurricanes-Waratahs snore-fest. Let me just say that if these two sides are considered flag-bearers by the New Zealanders and Australians respectively, then the Super 14 trophy will be coming back to South Africa this year. The Canes were marginally more dreadful than their Sydney-based rivals and appeared out-of-ideas, flatfooted and half-paced in everything that they did. The Tahs capitalised better on the ample turnover ball the Canes coughed up to them and ultimately deserved the win; both sides clearly have a lot of work to do and I wouldn’t consider either a serious title challenger based on Saturday’s showing. There are still at least 13 weeks to go, though…
And what of my beloved Sharks? I think it’s safe to say that they were pretty shocking for 20 minutes, much better for the next 30, absolutely superb for the 15 thereafter and then managed to hold on grittily for the final push. They came up against a committed and enterprising Stormers lineup who, as predicted, looked rudderless and devoid of ideas once inspirational skipper Jean de Villiers was forced off. One writes the Cape men off at your peril though, as the Sharks discovered, having to defend manfully to preserve the slenderest of leads at the end. The Sharks need to learn the same lesson as the Lions; nail the bloody coffin shut while you have the hammer in your hand! They had the Stormers completely under the cosh on 60 minutes, only to let them come back and bloody nearly take the game. For the men in blue, they will take heart at the way they pushed the Sharks, but will be hoping, if not praying, for a speedy return for de Villiers.
John Smit and Bismarck du Plessis were the catalysts for the Sharks upfront, together with the ever-impressive Jean Deysel. The sight of Smit, in the unfamiliar position of loose-head prop, demolishing Springbok Brian Mujati is one I won’t forget in a hurry. Ryan Kankowski also put in a few telling runs, but the Sharks pack at this stage resembles an engine in the process of being tuned, rather than one running at optimal capacity. The Stormers 8 did well, with the second row of Adriaan Fondse and Andries Bekker particularly prominent on defence. As a whole, though, the unit was shaded by the Sharks over 80 minutes.
For the Sharks, it was the attacking axis of Ruan Pienaar, Frans Steyn and Adi Jacobs that caused the most concern. The outside backs were pretty good, particularly on defence, but the midfield was leaky and the organisation on attack inadequate. Pienaar had a day he’d rather forget on just about all counts and the Sharks will need to work with him during the week to ensure he has a better outing against the Lions. The key is to accept the odd poor game as he becomes accustomed to the new position. The same can be said of Frans Steyn at inside centre, who tried to do too much on his own.
The Stormers backs were enterprising and dangerous by comparison and would have had more to show for their efforts had it not been for some particularly desperate scrambling defence by the Sharks loose forwards and back three.
Bearing in mind that I didn’t see the Bulls game – well, no more than 5 minutes of it, here is what I would consider a form South African fifteen after the first round:
1) Heinke van der Merwe
2) Bismarck du Plessis
3) John Smit
4) Adriaan Fondse
5) Victor Matfield
6) Schalk Burger
7) Jean Deysel
8) Willem Alberts
9) Rory Kockott
10) Earl Rose
11) Henno Mentz
12) Jean de Villiers
13) Jacque Fourie
14) Ashwin Willemse
15) Conrad Jantjes
So there we go. Bring on Round 2! I can’t wait.Tweet