Super Rugby heats up as teams look to clinch their place in the knockout stages with the Waratahs having a wobbly in Joburg, the Stormers making a statement in Cape Town and the Crusaders rising from the ashes in Nelson!

The Lineout continues its coverage of the business end of this year’s Super Rugby competition by focusing on the top teams from each of the three conferences in the competition.  It was a terrific weekend and all three matches served up some spectacular rugby.  Australian conference leaders the Waratahs, took a heady fall in Johannesburg against a Lions side that has shown week in and week out that guts and passion can get you results with some of their players surely being given some serious consideration for a World Cup Springbok place.  South African table toppers the Stormers made an emphatic statement in Cape Town as Springbok sevens superstar Seabelo Senatla dazzled us all with his speed and footwork.  Lastly in New Zealand, the Crusaders who have struggled all season showed us that the all-conquering Hurricanes can be beaten as they put on a vintage performance with All Black legend Dan Carter returning to some serious form.  In short, breathtaking stuff and a glorious advertisement for this superb competition.

Crusaders vs Hurricanes
Final Score – Crusaders 35/18

Going into this match the Hurricanes looked practically invincible and up against a Crusaders side that has been lacking its customary form this season, the result seemed a foregone conclusion.  The actual result not only surprised many but was done in such an emphatic manner that it showed that these last few rounds of the competition could go any way.  Exciting stuff!

The Crusaders welcomed back Dan Carter to the fold after a long absence due to injury and he did not disappoint and showed why he is still one of the greatest flyhalves the game has ever seen, as well as adding to the truly incredible depth of world-class number tens New Zealand has going into the World Cup – kind of depressing if you are not an All Black supporter!  Furthermore, Fijian international winger Nemani Nadolo (the Incredible Hulk with rocket packs for boots)  was truly devastating in attack and defence and surely must be making the England coaching staff nervous as they will have to face him in the opening match of the World Cup in September.

It was however, the return of Dan Carter that really showed us the class of old of this Crusaders team.  He read the game perfectly, calmly assessed every situation and never missed with the boot.  With that kind of competence and assurance a team becomes exceptionally difficult to beat and despite some strong comebacks from the Hurricanes especially in the second half, they never really looked like they could unlock the Dan Carter and co master plan.  Being on the wrong end of the game’s momentum for much of the match was something it was painfully evident that the Hurricanes were obviously not used to. As a result they often looked confused and sloppy, with their defence at times being truly woeful. Traditional key players for the Hurricanes such as Ma’a Nonu looked completely out of sorts on the pitch under a relentless Crusaders assault led by turbo tank Nadolo who will terrorise defences later this year at the World Cup for Fiji.

Relentless pressure from the Crusaders and constant quick ball left the Hurricanes defence scrambling right from the get go and several defensive breakdowns which Carter used to assuredly put the Crusaders in front on a series of penalty kicks. It was Nadolo who was instrumental in getting the Crusaders first score, as he barreled through a few tacklers and then through a superb offload set up some sublime passing from the Crusaders for Mitchell Drummond to get the men from Christchurch their first try. Despite a difficult kick, Carter showed he hasn’t lost his touch and the Crusaders were comfortably in charge at the 30 minute mark 16-3.

Playing against 14 men after a harsh yellow card for the Crusaders, the Hurricanes took full advantage of their extra man to get Dane Coles to crash over the line for their first of two tries. It wasn’t your traditional hooker try from the base of the breakdown but instead showed some superb footwork and sprinting through the Crusaders defence and atoned for a surprisingly poor performance from Coles in the lineouts.

The talk at halftime was obviously fairly serious in the Hurricanes changing room and the men from Wellington came out full of intent. Ardie Savea at number 7 who has impressed all season benefitted from a superb kick from Ma’a Nonu which was well used by Conrad Smith who then found the flanker ready to finish it off. It was a rare moment of brilliance from Ma’a Nonu who otherwise had a woeful match.

However, Nadolo continued to spoil the Hurricanes brief moment of optimism by wrecking every Hurricanes attack and often acting like a loose forward and getting some superb turnover ball for the Crusaders. Perhaps the moment that best summed up a bad day at the office for the Hurricanes was Nadolo’s own try towards the end of the second half as he popped the ball down across the line after a superb kick into space from Carter. Nonu appeared to not even contest the ball even though it landed within his reach but instead, in a move he will probably be re-examining all week, attempted to push a charging Nadolo coming at speed out of the way.

In the end it was a thoroughly well deserved win for the men from Christchurch and has clearly shown that as good as they are the Hurricanes are easily beatable especially if you surprise them. Call it complacency perhaps but either way the Hurricanes will have to pick up their game dramatically as they take on another challenger for the spoils next week in the form of the Highlanders.

Stormers vs Cheetahs
Final Score – 42/Cheetahs 12
Cape Town

Despite an often very brave performance from the Cheetahs they were never really in this match, and even without Schalk Burger the Stormers showed some real pedigree. Duane Vermeulen continued to show why he is probably the world’s best number eight right now and an exceptionally versatile player. Could we be seeing him as Springbok captain for the World Cup, as he is a truly inspirational player to the rest of his teammates? Fantastic in defence and on attack, and amazingly as good under the high ball as some of the best fullbacks in the international game, Vermeulen is definitely the complete rugby package and no doubt will play a big part in Springbok coach Heineke Meyer’s planning for South Africa’s upcoming World Cup campaign.

Sadly for the Cheetahs, who to give them their credit never gave up for the full eighty minutes, they were completely outclassed by the Stormers who themselves have shown enormous progress in some previously weak areas of their game such as the lineouts and scrums, despite having a roster of players who should arguably be dominant in such set pieces. However, in this match the Stormers looked comfortably in charge of all aspects of their game. Argentine number 5 Manuel Carizza was superb alongside Eben Etzebeth in the lineouts and scrums while the front room engine of Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch and Scarra Ntabeni was devastatingly effective, Koch and Kitshoff in particular having a stellar game. Nizam Carr and Siya Kolisi provided further support in the back row and there was no question that it was the Stormers’ day while Springbok coach Heineke Meyer has much to be excited about come selection time.

However, for me in this match there were two revelations that I was not expecting. Springbok sevens star Seabelo Senatla was truly outstanding on the wing and seamlessly made the transition to the 15 a side game. What really impressed me was not just his speed and dazzling footwork, but also his strength and tenacity particularly in the tackle which you don’t often see from sevens players. The man was everywhere on the pitch even throwing his weight in with the forwards when needed. His own two tries in the match were joyful expressions of exciting running rugby. Add to that some sublime passing and handling skills and if he keeps it up this is a very exciting Springbok prospect for the World Cup. The other revelation for me was Damien De Allende, who I must confess I have often and with some reason regarded as a slightly overrated player. Well after this match, Mr. De Allende if you can keep it up I hope you will accept my heartfelt apology. De Allende in this match was immense and put in a superb afternoon’s work. Almost unstoppable due to his strength once he had a built up a head of steam with ball in hand, he too showed off some superb passing and footwork skills coupled with some excellent physicality in attack and defence. In past matches, particularly in a Springbok jersey, I have often found him to be rather nonexistent on the pitch, but not this past weekend. If he keeps it up and is able to work well with South Africa’s other impressive centre Jan Serfontein, this could be an exceptionally dangerous centerfield pairing for the World Cup.

So yes it was the Stormers’ day and deservedly so. The Cheetahs in their last match for coach Naka Drotske were brave but ultimately outplayed and outclassed. It hasn’t been a great season for them and surely one that they will want to forget and move on to next year’s season and this year’s Currie Cup. Always courageous and dogged especially in defence they just didn’t have the speed and skill set of their Cape Town rivals. We wish them well for the rest of this year, while South Africa’s hopes for the competition seem to rest squarely with the Stormers, with the Bulls and the Lions providing the heart and in the Lions’ case a lot to cheer about!

Lions vs Waratahs
Final Score – Lions 27/Waratahs 22

The Lions have increasingly shown this season that if you take a bunch of players that are’nt the biggest names in the sport but manage to motivate the living daylights out of them then the sky is potentially the limit.  The Lions have definitely become the all-star underdogs of the tournament and are turning heads in and outside South Africa.  Solid defensively and electric with ball in hand they have been a consistently exciting team to watch.  On top of that two of their players, Jaco Kriel and Ruan Combrinck must surely be firmly in the sights of Springbok coach Heineke Meyer.

The Waratahs arrived in Johannesburg enjoying a brief period at the top of the Australian Super Rugby conference, even though the Brumbies are chasing them hard for the spot and are most likely to return to it after this weekend’s action.  Nevertheless, the Waratahs boast a significant Wallaby contingent and have proved to be a more than capable side.  The Lions on the other hand have been enjoying the reputation of giant slayers this year and their end of season form has been outstanding.

The Lions got things off to a cracking start with a beautiful offload from fly half Jantjies to the Lions electric winger Ruan Combrinck resulting in the first try for the men from Johannesburg.  The Waratahs were quick to reply and despite there being a bit of a grey area about the ball being knocked forward the Australians got their first 5 pointer of the evening through some solid work from the forward pack.

In a game that was full of exciting running from both sides, and the Waratahs Adam Ashley-Cooper being particularly impressive all match, there was tension from start to finish.  However, after their first try it started to look like the Waratahs were going to gain the ascendancy until the Lions Ruan Combrinck once more decided to make a statement.  Starting a brilliant movement from within their own half, Combrinck broke out on a brilliant run and went to ground. From there the rest of his pack effectively recycled the ball through another 5 phases to then ultimately have the Lions winger crash over in the left hand corner from some brilliant passing to seal off the move he had started.  Heady stuff from the Lions winger that showed pace and vision backed up by some brilliant supporting play from the rest of his teammates.

From there the game would seesaw back into the Waratahs favour, with Wallaby mainstays Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper working exceptionally well together.  However, despite repeated breaks from these two the Lions were able to effectively regroup and slow the Waratahs down spearheaded by the immense work rate of Lions flanker Jaco Kriel who put in a huge shift all night.  Adam Ashley-Cooper would nevertheless score a superb try from a beautifully worked pass from Kurtley Beale.  Rob Horne would be next to benefit from some Beale magic as he too was put in space by the Waratahs centre and able to add to the Waratahs scoreline.  However, in between these two scores, after a moment of recklessness from South African born Jacques Potgeiter for the Waratahs caused the Australians to be down to 14 men for ten minutes, and despite another superb break from Beale the Waratahs momentum was brought to a screaming halt by Jaco Kriel who secured the Lions a valuable turnover.  From there the Lions kept possession through some quick phases and the Lions centre Vorster would get the Lions another five pointer, ably converted by Jantjies.

The remainder of the game was a tense affair but the Lions were able to hold on despite Jantjies penalty kicking going severely off target in the last 20 minutes of the match. In short an impressive and dogged performance from the Lions that was effective but also showed plenty of flair and panache in attack. Both teams gave us a great show of running rugby. Interestingly, Wallaby danger man Israel Folau was rarely a threat for the Waratahs the whole match. To be honest, for much of the last year I have rarely regarded Folau as much of a threat and his performance this weekend if anything reinforced my opinion. Put him under pressure and he makes far too many errors and his defensive play is in general pretty woeful. There is no doubt that Folau is a talented and gifted player but one far too easy to read and opposition sides certainly seem to have got the measure of Folau and how to contain and neutralize the threat he poses.

The Lions emerged the deserved winners in what I thought was the most exciting match of the weekend. The Lions have really shown that they are everybody’s favourite underdog team in the competition. As they now sit second in the South African log – what further surprises has this gutsy group of individuals got in store for us? Either way, I think it is fairly certain that people will be cheering them on and quietly admiring their dedication and obvious enthusiasm. If they are hoping for a place in the knockout stages – on the basis of their current form it is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. Whether you’re a Lions supporter or not, I am sure you’ll probably take more than just a look at the highlights of their remaining games!


Published by Neil Olsen

Passionate about rugby and trying to promote the global game in Canada and North America.

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