The expected answers were provided on the opening weekend to the question of which teams are most likely to challenge for Super 14 glory this year — the Sharks, the Waratahs, the Crusaders and maybe the Bulls.
In short, in most instances, the same old suspects, with those four teams having appeared in more semifinals over the past five or six years than any other team outside of that group, with the possible exception of the Hurricanes.
Yes, this competition is a marathon, and not a sprint, so we have to keep the Hurricanes near the mix somewhere, for while they conspired against themselves by being too loose – an overriding trend, by the way, in the first round – they did show when they came back from a big deficit to almost steal it at the death against the Waratahs that they have enough strength in most areas to challenge strongly.
But a win at the Cake Tin is a great way to start the Super 14, and in doing so the Waratahs provided an excellent riposte to those who write them off by virtue of them having lost their coach from last season (who anyway was sacked). They showed in this game, one of two really big ones on the opening weekend, that they have enough returnees from the team that made the final last year to be strong challengers again.
To be precise, there were 11 players who started in the final who played the opening match of 2009, and they showed against the Hurricanes that they retain the big element that was so impressive from them in their strong finish last year — namely their improved physicality, plus a great blend of deftness and power in most areas.
If an away win in Wellington is impressive, then one at a Newlands ground that was filled with 47 000 mostly Stormers supporters is even more so. And if you add to that the fact that the Sharks had to come from a ten-point half-time deficit to achieve their victory, then you begin to understand why so many fancy their chances of going all the way.
Like the Waratahs, there was a lot of impressive strength and physicality in the Sharks approach, but there was also great composure when they were under pressure in the first half and again towards the end, as well as a lot of clinical efficiency in the middle bits of the game, which they dominated.
Gavin Rich writes for SuperRugby that many have said that Jean de Villiers’s departure immediately after half time with what has turned out to be whiplash was the turning point of the Newlands match, but in reality the Sharks started winning it when their forwards clicked into over-drive at around the half hour mark and when Rory Kockott started controlling the game with his kicking from the base.
You should not write off the Stormers for they came back from an abysmal start last year, and they did show plenty of promise in the first half, but the way they looked so rudderless when De Villiers was gone answered in a negative way all those questions about their depth.
The Stormers can win the Super 14, but to do it, all the top players, the indispensible ones such as De Villiers and Schalk Burger, are going to have to remain fit the whole way through.
They are also going to have to improve the quality of their forward play, and find ways to turn Schalk Brits and Andries Bekker into players who contribute more in the tight-loose rather than just in open play when the game gets loose.
Indeed, the approaches and the strategies of the teams adopted on the opening weekend could make for the most interesting debating point over the coming week. There was much enthusiasm from commentators for the number of tries that were scored, but it should not escape the notice of critics that the teams that won the better, high quality games were the ones that kept it a bit simpler.
Certainly the Sharks management looked at their willingness to keep it basic as a significant factor in their win over the Stormers, who were the complete antithesis in their approach to the way they started last year, when they were criticised for being conservative.
For all the flash provided by the Stormers in the first half against the Sharks, that was not what brought them their points. Their first-half try came courtesy mainly of the pressure placed on a Sharks clearance under pressure near the tryline, with the Stormers running that clearance back with great effect.
There were some great tries scored across the first round matches at the weekend, and there were some teams who won playing extremely loose rugby. But then if one team playing loose rugby plays against another team playing loose rugby, one of them has to win. My money says that the game is going to evolve over the next few weeks in much the same way as last year, with teams best equipped to mix flair with pragmatism being the ones that will prevail.
Highlanders 31 Brumbies 33
Western Force 19 Blues 25
Lions 34 Cheetahs 28
Crusaders 19 Chiefs 13
Hurricanes 22 Waratahs 26
Stormers 15 Sharks 20
Bulls 33 Reds 20