Here we go again. Super Rugby is upon us after what seems like a very small break. We have fewer teams and, as usual, some different law interpretations to grapple with. There are still way too many games because the competition does not stand on its own. It has to find a place alongside domestic rugby, the Rugby Championship, the overseas tours and the odd Barbarian game. Of course, sponsors need their pounds, or kilos, of flesh but to the fans and viewers, the market, if you like, consists of all the rugby we see. Supply and demand apply. If there is too much then the value goes down and the golden goose becomes silver.
However, despite this warning, the opening games were promising. I am always amazed at how fresh and fit the players look after such a short rest. Do they look even fitter than usual? I think so and this might be due to the rest of the world looking at the athleticism of the All Blacks and deciding to try and emulate them. Teams have been working hard but I wonder, will the warnings of Tim Noakes about fatigue be forgotten? I believe his resting advice, wisely taken by Jake White, was one of the reasons we won the 2007 World Cup. Players are not machines where parts can be replaced. They can break down and fail. The tackling also seems a notch up on the Bakkies Botha scale of aggression. The refereeing, though, was excellent.
The Lions and Sharks filled me with optimism. Both sides attacked well and it’s clear that Warren Whiteley’s leadership is a key factor. Aspects of the game raised interesting questions. Robert Du Preez Jr is not the finished article but to have such a physical presence at ten has its advantages in getting across the gain line. Shades of Henry Honiball? On the other hand, Kwagga Smith again defies modern logic with his speed and athleticism on the flank. Maybe the days of a Little and Large will return. What a debut from Aphiwe Dyantyi? Much to talk about and much about which to enthuse.
The Stormers vs Jaguares game was not as good but some players who had recently become decidedly donkey-ish looked as though they had embraced skill again. Damian de Allende, in particular, scored a beauty. Mind you, if it wasn’t for poor discipline the Argentinians could well have won. How do you coach discipline and yet also extreme physicality and aggression? That’s what coaching is all about I suppose.
On Friday, much parochial optimism evaporated with the game from Dunedin. The Highlanders and Blues are not the top New Zealand sides at the moment but, my goodness, did they put on a show. The level of rugby was incredible and, once again, the skills under extreme pressure shone through. In tight space the back of the hand pass enables the defender to be taken out far more effectively than conventional straightening and passing. In New Zealand the skill is now a standard one and this is scary. Goal kicking is now so good that I wonder if it is time to copy Sevens and do away with the place kick altogether? Why bother with place kicks when we know that the vast majority will be successful. Drops will reintroduce reward for skill. Just a thought. As usual with each new Kiwi season some lesser players look ready to step up to the Black. Rob Thompson and Tei Walden at centre and Bryn Gatland, Warren’s son, at ten, look well up to the mark. New names that impressed amongst the forwards are too many to list. The black conveyor belt is rumbling on.
I liked the Rebels against the Reds but losing Higginbotham so early made it a one sided contest. Will Genia looks back to his best after a few years of, by his standard, mediocrity. Don’t write off the Aussies.
The new law interpretations designed to uncomplicate the game are to be applauded. However, I note former World Cup winning Wallaby coach Rod McQueen’s comments. He said that the new ruck reading will reduce the contest for possession and this will lead to more and more phases. He cited Ireland’s 41 that led to the winning drop against France. It was wonderful but just imagine if each side in rugby retained possession for such long periods? It would be cringingly boring to see them inch their way forward. The answer might be to limit their time in possession by number of phases allowed. It’s a thought but, if you do that, with scrums and line-outs almost predictable these days, then you have, basically, Rugby League not Rugby Union. Maybe the two codes need to amalgamate again. That would be interesting.
Super Rugby is off to a good start. It usually is. The problem begins when mid-competition stagnation sets in and each game morphs into the next… Early pointers suggest New Zealand has leapt forward once again. I can’t wait to see how we react and what Rassie has in store for us.