The close results in this season's Super Rugby tournament have piled on the pressure as the teams in all three countries rebuild their squads.
One of the oddities that slipped into the conditions of Super Rugby’s upgrade to 15 teams last year was a guarantee of four points for not playing. Each team has two byes in the course of the season and therefore even the most hopeless side is guaranteed eight points on the final log. The consequence of this system is that interpreting the overall standings at this stage is fraught with danger.
What we can say is that there are two unbeaten sides, the Highlanders and the Stormers, both on 16 points at the top of the log. But the Stormers have played three games to the Highlanders’ four. The difference is that the Cape side had a bye last week.
It is a statistical oddity, however, that neither team has yet managed a four-try bonus point, underlining the fact that results this year have been closer than ever before.
No standout team
It also suggests that there are no truly outstanding sides in this year’s tournament, something that may change as the months pass. At this early juncture, however, it suggests that the traditional rebuilding period following a World Cup is happening in all three countries.
Last week’s round of matches produced some thrilling rugby and the edge-of-seat award goes to the Cheetahs, who scored the winning try after the final hooter against the Rebels in Melbourne.
But, from a quality perspective, the match between the Reds, the defending champions, and the Sharks in Durban took pride of place.
In the continued absence, through injury, of Quade Cooper, the Reds have not been the well-oiled machine of 2011. But they were unbeaten going to Kings Park and may have remained so had injury not befallen both of Cooper’s flyhalf replacements. The final quarter, in which Will Genia was forced to move away from the scrum to plug the gap, showed how much the Reds miss Cooper.
Sharks seize the moment
The Sharks were good enough to exploit the misfortune that befell the visitors. After being 17-0 down at the half-hour mark, they won the next 50 minutes 27-5. It might have been even more decisive had the match officials been a little sharper.
Assistant referee Cobus Wessels was keen-eyed enough to penalise Willem Alberts for a clumsy ruck entry and thereby overturn what looked like a perfectly good try for Lwazi Mvovo. But a few minutes later neither Wessels nor referee Jonathan Kaplan could bring themselves to give more than a yellow card for Digby Ioane’s dangerous tip tackle on Marcel Coetzee.
The seriousness of Ioane’s indiscretion was confirmed by Super Rugby governing body Sanzar’s judicial officer, Mike Heron, handing a five-week ban to the player on Tuesday.
Ironically, the Super Rugby bye system also raised its head in the matter when Heron declared that the Reds’ bye week was deemed to be part of the ban, meaning Ioane will miss four games, not five. Go figure.
The next opponent for the Sharks will be the Waratahs in Sydney during the Durban side’s month-long tour. Momentum travels with them and the Waratahs are struggling in the lower reaches of the table after a home defeat to the Force last week. This is a reversal of normal fortunes for the Sydney team, because they traditionally begin the competition strongly and fade towards the end.
In recent years travelling across the time zones has been handled in a far more positive manner by South African teams. A generation of players has grown up that has only ever known Super Rugby and the fear of the unknown has consequently diminished. Until last year, for instance, the Cheetahs had never won a game in Australia. Last week they proved their mettle, albeit against the tournament’s whipping boys. This week, however, the Cheetahs meet the Crusaders in Christchurch and that may be a bridge too far, particularly because the seven-times champions welcome back Dan Carter for the great flyhalf’s first game of rugby since he broke New Zealand hearts by limping out of the World Cup six months ago.
Back home, the two Highveld matches this weekend should produce some compelling rugby. The Reds have had to call two back-line replacements from outside their training squad to fill the holes created by suspension and injury. They meet a Bulls side emerging from a bye and, if the early season promise is to be fulfilled, it is a game the Bulls must win.
Across the Jukskei in Johannesburg the Lions, who also emerge from a week off, host the Stormers. After narrowly beating the Cheetahs in week one, the Lions lost their next two games. If their season is not to go pear-shaped, they at least need to be competitive against the Stormers.
The visitors, who consider themselves genuine title contenders, should be targeting a straightforward victory. Beyond the bluster of familiar quotes such as “there’s no such thing as an easy game”, “local derbies are always 50-50” and “we won’t be underestimating them”, the bald fact of the matter is that the Stormers are the better side. Proving it under pressure is what winning titles is all about.