Super Rugby heads into week eight of 19 this weekend, with last year’s beaten finalists Golden Lions desperate to end a three-match losing streak and protect an impressive unbeaten run in local derbies.
Storm brewing in the Lions’ den
The Lions have had it tough lately after losing three in a row, including going down to the Canterbury Crusaders in a repeat of last year’s final.
They are not only keen to snap that when they play the Western Stormers this weekend, but they also want to protect a 17-match derby winning record.
The last South African side to tip them over were the Stormers 22-19 in February 2015.
Lions loosehead Jacques van Rooyen has a hardened philosophy to add extra edge to his motivation for South African derby matches.
“When your opponent sits on the bus driving away from the game‚ he must remember your name. As an old man, he must still be talking about you. That one big tackle‚ or that one scrum where you popped his rib.”
Popped ribs or not, when it’s over, 22 members of the Lions and Stormers will link up and head to a Springboks training camp on Sunday.
Tana on the defensive
Under pressure Blues coach Tana Umaga has made five changes and called for an improved defensive effort as the Aucklanders face Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday.
The Blues leaked 63 points against the Sharks last week and already look likely to miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive year after picking up only one win in five matches this season.
“We let ourselves down with our team defence,” Umaga said.
“The boys all realise that and have come in this week with a determined attitude. Last year we were developing into a strong team defensive unit and we must get back to that level.”
The stats show Umaga’s men face a daunting task.
They have not won against the Chiefs in 13 matches, a record between two teams in the southern hemisphere competition.
They have already lost to Chiefs once this year, 27-21 at home in week three, they have not beaten the Chiefs away since 2011 and their last win against any New Zealand side was at the start of the 2016 season.
High intensity for blossoming Waratahs
The NSW Waratahs have made their best start to a Super Rugby season since 2009 and are chasing another win over the Sunwolves in Tokyo on Saturday.
The Tahs have won three, drawn one, and lost one of their opening five games and are coming off an Australian derby victory over the ACT Brumbies in Canberra.
The Phil Waugh-captained Waratahs of nine years ago won four from five, then missed the top four finals series by a points differential of just four behind the Crusaders.
The Waratahs, coached by Daryl Gibson, are planning on using openside flank specialists Michael Hooper and rookie Will Miller in tandem to outpace the Sunwolves, considered to play the quickest rugby in the tournament.
“We believe the game’s going to be played at a high intensity because of the way the Sunwolves like to play, a lot of ball in play, they like to play fast,” Gibson said.
“So we’ve opted for what see as a really fast loose-forward trio.”
Man Utd of rugby
With four wins out of five, the Wellington Hurricanes are already being tipped in many quarters as likely champions this year, with Melbourne Rebels coach Dave Wessels gushing over what he dubbed “the Manchester United of Super Rugby”.
But coach Chris Boyd dismissed the high praise as they prepared to clash with the Coastal Sharks in Napier on Friday.
Boyd sometimes wonders if the pundits are watching the same game as him when they talk up the Hurricanes.
“It’s interesting because sometimes my opinion of who our best players are, and who our most valuable players are, are not seen by other people,” he said.
“I think the talk about the championship is massively premature and there’s still a whole bunch of teams in the competition that can win this thing.”
The Hurricanes and Sharks have faced each other 19 times to share a nine win, nine loss, one draw record.
While the Hurricanes have made a flying start to this season, the Sharks were struggling with a sole win and a draw until last week when they slapped more than 60 points on the hapless Blues.
White spots the problem with green coaches
The Hurricanes, Chiefs and Waratahs have been the most successful teams through the first eight weeks of the competition, suffering one loss each.
Another four teams, the Melbourne Rebels, Otago Highlanders and Queensland Reds are close behind with two losses.
Notably missing from the winners circle are the South Africans whose best performing sides, the Golden Lions and Coastal Sharks, have lost three times already.
Jake White, who coached the Springboks to win the 2007 World Cup, has suggested that maybe the problem lay with the coaches.
Too many, he argues, have been fast-tracked to the top.
“It’s an indictment of our rugby that people who remember the standard of rugby pre-professionalism believe that a team from the amateur era would beat the current Springboks,” White wrote for the All Out Rugby website.
Modern-day players may train every day, have a full nutrition plan, comprehensive opposition analysis, and every kind of specialist coach imaginable, but amateur-era players were “mentally and physically tougher … because they were coached by men who had been around for a long time.”
© Agence France-Presse