The more things change, the more they stay the same. Right? Not quite.
The 2014 edition of Super Rugby looks set to dish up far more surprises than previously thought, with teams who’ve previously struggled to make an impact looking more threatening than before. And, some of the teams of which much was expected are struggling somewhat in the early rounds of the competition.
What we have in front of us then is a Super Rugby season that looks set to be more closely contested than in previous years. Every match and every point earned will prove crucial with the eventual top six – who feature in the play-offs – anyone’s guess at this early stage.
Sure, the three conference leaders – the Waratahs, Sharks and Chiefs – have won both their games up to now and appear to be the favourites from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, but the strong performances of some of the also-rans of the past, teams like the Lions, Highlanders and Rebels, suggest this could be a much tighter competition than before.
And teams who’ve generally done well in Super Rugby in the recent past – outfits like the Crusaders, Stormers, Reds and Bulls – are battling a little at the moment.
Furthermore, the likes of the Brumbies, who went all the way to the final last year, and the Cheetahs, who played in the “quarter-finals” for the first time in 2013, have had very up-and-down starts to the new season.
While this year’s competition is still in its infancy, indications are that if the Stormers, Bulls and Cheetahs don’t find their form quickly, South Africa’s hope for another title will rest solely with Jake White’s Sharks. It is indeed true the Stormers and Bulls picked up their first wins of the competition at the weekend – against the Hurricanes and Lions respectively – but both sides were some way off their best and far from convincing. And the Cheetahs, despite downing the Bulls in week two, slumped to a defeat against the Rebels in a performance coach Naka Drotske will want to forget very quickly.
And such is the competitiveness of Super Rugby this year of the above-mentioned local teams could lose this weekend. The Bulls face the Blues, a very dangerous team and big winners over the Crusaders this last weekend, the Stormers are in Christchurch against a desperate Crusaders, who’ve lost two out of two, while the Cheetahs face an equally desperate Reds in Brisbane after taking a pounding from the Waratahs.
And in Durban on Saturday, the Lions – who suffered their first defeat in three matches at a wet Loftus Versfeld at the weekend – are up against the Sharks, who had a bye at the weekend and a side who look to be one of the main title contenders. How the Lions respond after their first loss will tell a lot about their mental strength and whether they are indeed able to sustain the form and hunger shown in the first two rounds.
Yes, the Bulls and Stormers won at the weekend – which will ease the pressure to an extent – but just like the Lions, they now need to show they’re back on track. As for the Cheetahs, well, they need to find the spirit that drove them so strongly last year.
Bulls 25, Lions 17; Western Force 14, Brumbies 27; Waratahs 32, Reds 5; Chiefs 21, Highlanders 19; Stormers 19, Hurricanes 18; Rebels 35, Cheetahs 14; Blues 35, Crusaders 24
Friday: Hurricanes v Brumbies; Reds v Cheetahs
Saturday: Crusaders v Stormers; Force v Rebels; Bulls v Blues; Sharks v Lions - The Star