What we learned from the first round of Vodacom Super Rugby, according to CRAIG LEWIS.
Vodacom Bulls, new recruits make massive statement
For a new-looks Bulls team, Saturday’s 40-3 annihilation of the Stormers was as good as it gets. Coming into the clash, the Bulls would have been regarded as favourites, but no one could have imagined just how dominant they would be. The home side targeted the Stormers at the set pieces, particularly at lineout time, while producing a tactical masterclass to dominate territory and build scoreboard pressure. For a season-opener, this was a remarkably clinical performance, and one that sends out a real message about the Bulls successfully beginning a new era. New recruits such as Rosko Specman, Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Brits were all outstanding, while Warrick Gelant and Man of the Match Handré Pollard displayed their class in controlling proceedings tactically. It was a performance to savour.
Woeful Stormers haunted by lineout woes
As much as Saturday’s clash in Pretoria showcased a Bulls masterclass, it was a horror night for the Stormers. The rot really started at lineout time, with the Stormers failing to secure their own throw-in at four of these set pieces within the first 25 minutes. It left the Stormers rattled, and provided the Bulls with an early opportunity to establish ascendancy. During the pre-season, the Stormers have publicly sought to downplay the effect of off-field issues, but they will struggle to talk their way out of this performance. In virtually every facet, the Stormers were utterly outplayed, and it points to what could be a very long season ahead as pressure builds on coach Robbie Fleck.
Lions take different route to important victory
On the way to reaching three successive finals, the Lions have primarily been lauded for their eye-catching attacking game. Yet, as a new season kicks off, they should take some pride from the manner in which they went about overcoming the Jaguares on Saturday. Having lost on all three previous visits to Argentina, this time the Lions opted to shelve their traditional running rugby, and rather backed their defence, set pieces and rolling maul. It worked a treat, with Marnus Schoeman scoring a hat-trick of tries off the back of this foundation, while the Lions also wreaked havoc at the breakdown, with Malcolm Marx and Carlu Sadie winning three turnovers each. In total, the Lions had to make 152 tackles to 73, but the likes of Marvin Orie, Warren Whiteley and Rhyno Herbst did a mountain of work on defence. All in all, this should be a hugely encouraging result for the Lions.
Lukhanyo Am back with a bang
The Sharks centre, unfortunately, missed the latter part of last year after suffering an injury against the All Blacks in Wellington. It curtailed a promising season, but on Saturday he returned to action with a highly-impressive performance against the Sunwolves. Am again demonstrated the nuances that are so important to outside centre play, with the 25-year-old providing two try assists as he straightened the line, drew in defenders before executing a well-timed pass to set the player outside him away for a try. Besides making 25m from seven carries, he also completed eight tackles and won a turnover.
Kiwi derbies provide compelling viewing
In many ways, it was completely unsurprising that two of the most entertaining games in the opening round came in New Zealand derbies. The Highlanders and Chiefs kicked off the season with a high-drama encounter that saw the Dunedin-based team mount a late comeback win despite being at a one-man disadvantage. Then came one of the clashes of the weekend, with the Crusaders and Blues producing a quality showing in Auckland. Although the defending champion Crusaders were regarded as heavy favourites, the Blues delivered a highly-encouraging season-opening performance, and were ultimately only denied victory as a result of a couple of missed kicks. Early signs certainly suggest the New Zealand conference will be as competitive as ever this year.
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