Five lessons from the past weekend's Super Rugby quarter-finals, according to CRAIG LEWIS.
Lions emphatically reaffirmed their championship credentials
Despite the Lions’ scintillating form all season, there were a number of pre-match pundits who predicted a victory for the Crusaders in Saturday’s quarter-final. After all, the seven-time champs have embraced an efficient all-round game throughout this season and secured a good victory at Ellis Park earlier in the competition. Yet, a Saders side filled with All Blacks proved to simply be no match for the high-flying Lions. The Johannesburg-based side married irrepressible attack with outstanding defence, and ultimately roared to a resounding 42-25 win. The Lions will now host the Highlanders in Saturday’s second semi-final, and based on this past weekend’s performance, there is no reason to believe they will fail to progress to the title decider.
Malcolm Marx a Springbok in waiting
There were a host of star performers for the Lions in Saturday’s resounding win over the Crusaders: Faf de Klerk, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Franco Mostert, Ruan Combrinck and Elton Jantjies were all in top form. However, hooker Malcolm Marx sent out another strong statement about being considered for higher honours during the Rugby Championship. The talented 22-year-old has come of age this season, and while he has understandably drawn comparisons to Bok stalwart Bismarck du Plessis, there is no doubt he boasts unique strengths. As SuperSport analyst Nick Mallett pointed out, Marx has incredible mobility for such a robust player, and his speed and skills around the park are more reminiscent of a loose forward. There is no doubt he should be in the Springbok reckoning, and could well provide serious competition for the No 2 jersey.
Sharks left worst for last
It’s no surprise that Sharks captain Beast Mtawarira labelled Saturday’s 41-0 quarter-final loss to the Hurricanes as ‘an embarrassment’. Indeed, at times during the Sharks’ humiliating defeat, it appeared as if they wanted to be anywhere else except in cold, wet Wellington. It was undoubtedly the Sharks’ worst performance of the season. As illustrated by SARugbymag.co.za’s Opta-powered stats, the Canes scored six tries to none, made 504m to 247, beat 26 defenders to seven and completed 11 clean breaks to three. The Sharks also conceded 21 turnovers and missed a whopping 26 tackles. It aptly reflects an abysmal performance that certainly didn’t do justice to the Sharks jersey and saw them end their season on the lowest possible note.
Stormers hurt by conference format
This season the Stormers were dealt what was seen as a dream draw. They avoided facing the front-running New Zealand sides, enjoyed timely byes and had very few arduous travel experiences. It enabled them to comfortably book their place in the playoffs, but it was clear that the Stormers’ favourable schedule also proved to be somewhat deceiving. After all, this is still a side in transition under new coach Robbie Fleck. They were never tested against the top Kiwi sides, and so it was always going to be difficult to judge just how good they were. However, the 60-21 thrashing delivered by the Chiefs in Saturday’s quarter-final provided a rather emphatic insight into just that. Unsurprisingly, Fleck and outgoing stalwart Schalk Burger admitted that the Stormers had simply been outclassed, and both acknowledged that not playing against any New Zealand sides had actually proved to be a disservice in the lead-up to their quarter-final. Again, it also illustrated the folly of the new and nonsensical Super Rugby format.
Fans speaking with their feet
Just 29,000 spectators turned up to watch the Stormers’ quarter-final against the Chiefs, while the attendance at Ellis Park was also extremely disappointing for the Lions’ big clash against the Crusaders. All season, crowd attendances at grounds around South Africa have been far from impressive. It’s a clear indication of the effects of rugby overkill and the public’s increasing disillusionment in a tournament with a confusing format and which no longer pits every side against each other. The dwindling crowd figures have to be a concern, with Super Rugby itself and the match-day experience clearly not offering what it once did.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images