First-round upsets are just what the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament needed, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
In the history of Super Rugby, there hasn’t been a weekend quite like it. Six away wins in seven and last season’s finalists hammered at home.
I love it. More of the same please – every weekend.
This is the kind of return that makes for a special tournament; the uncertainty of a result and the reality that it's possible to win on the road.
Super Rugby, in its original form as Super 12, offered possibilities of a weekend in which no punter would have gone unscathed.
My return at the weekend was two from seven – and that was par in the office at SA Rugby magazine, where only one in six rugby writers got more than two right.
It’s this kind of unpredictability the tournament needs, but it’s a predictability that needs to be sustained into the second month of the tournament.
It’s happened before, if not quite to the extent of the past weekend, where kids have upstaged the dads of Super Rugby and the so-called no-name brands have scored a famous win.
Never has the weekend so overwhelmingly belonged to the historical underdog. Dare we dream it continues well into the winter?
Not quite knowing which way a result will go is what creates the magic in a contest. It was what defined Super Rugby’s original 1996 creation, the Super 12.
The quality of players meant one could knock over 12 and in those seasons of 12 Super teams, four league points invariably separated positions four through to eight.
This past weekend reminded me of that first year because there was an uncertainty in how teams would fare, especially those with new coaches,
There was also the unknown of attitude in a World Cup year. Would some of the more experienced treat Super Rugby as an inconvenience that needed to be negotiated and if so would the emerging talent allow for that kind of luxury?
The answer was emphatic. There can be no passengers in this tournament or they'll miss the World Cup send-off.
It was the weekend of the young guns and those teams who have been perennial basement dwellers.
The Rebels were outstanding in hammering the Crusaders in Christchurch and the Force were equally ruthless in stunning last season’s champions, the Waratahs.
In South Africa, the Cheetahs and Stormers upstaged the more experienced Sharks and Bulls lineups. Young players, still to make their name, stuck it to the seasoned Springboks.
It made for brilliant viewing and the response of the oldies in the coming weeks will be equally riveting.
It’s a long tournament this, and history has shown that it’s who is winning in the last month who is making the play-offs; not necessarily who dazzles in week one.
The perspective will be there – among all 15 coaches – that one weekend is not the making of a champion or a tournament – but that doesn’t mean there can’t be celebration of the weekend.
The Brumbies, with former Australian flyhalf Stephen Larkham in his first year as the sole head coach, were outstanding in dismantling the Reds. They were easy on the eye and so were the Stormers in winning in Pretoria.
The Stormers were particularly impressive because they were willing to back their attack and their so-called little men Cheslin Kolbe and Juan de Jongh trusted their skills to dance their way through a defence when in Bulls country the only known way is a stampede.
The Stormers big men provided the stampede and the authority. The Stormers played with adventure but they also played with huge physicality.
South Africa’s 2014 Player of the Year Duane Vermeulen was massive – again – and inside centre Damian de Allende gave a commanding performance to be the Man of the Match.
The Bulls surprisingly battled in the set phases and when the Bulls don’t get dominance through numbers one to eight, there is seldom an alternative.
Individuals excelled in losing teams.
Springbok flyhalf Handré Pollard was good for the Bulls, as was Pat Lambie at flyhalf for the Sharks, and a good South African Super Rugby challenge would be even better if both Pollard and Lambie prospered all season, without injury and without questions about their ability to take charge of a match.
The Cheetahs again championed their cause as being the people’s team and every supporter’s favourite other team. Somehow they always find something special, despite annually losing so many players to wealthier franchises.
They nailed a Sharks set-up, in which the coach-heavy staff have had a lot to say about expansive rugby, thrilling rugby and rugby with balance.
Their supporters would simply take winning rugby.
Similarly, those loyalists of the Lions.
Why is it that the Lions never translate their Currie Cup form to Super Rugby? Or is it simply that they are akin to a player who is too good for the seconds but not quite good enough for the firsts?
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images