In a weekend that left us with few surprises, the only real question on everybody’s lips was who would upset the pecking order in the South African conference? The dominant Stormers were up against the surprise form team of the season for South Africa, the Lions, in Cape Town to determine who would win the South African conference as well as have a shot at a home semi-final. Given South African teams’ record on the road in the last year, for the Stormers to realistically stand any chance to get to the final they HAD to secure a bonus point win against the Lions to make this a reality. In probably one of the most intensely physical games I have seen this year, the always bold and courageous Lions denied the Stormers their ticket for that home semi-final while at the same time raising injury concerns for the Springboks in their upcoming Rugby Championship and World Cup campaigns. For the Australians, the Waratahs comfortably dispatched an initially highly competitive Cheetahs side in Bloemfontein. Meanwhile in New Zealand the ultimate Super Rugby team of 2015, the Hurricanes, destroyed the Highlanders as the team sought to honor the memory of their former teammate Jerry Collins, whose tragic loss in a car accident that day in France was marked around the rugby world with great sadness.
Hurricanes vs Highlanders
Final Score – Hurricanes 56/Highlanders 20
With the tragic news of the death of former Hurricanes and All Black player Jerry Collins, foremost in the minds of the men from Wellington they set out to honor his legacy by completely blitzing a valiant but hapless Highlanders side. You could sense the emotion in the Hurricanes players especially from Captain Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu who both started their careers alongside Jerry “the Hitman” Collins when he was at the peak of his career. What we saw from the Hurricanes was a blistering performance where the entire team stuck up their hands for All Black selection as they ran in eight tries against a spirited Highlanders side who scored three of their own.
It was some vintage rugby and even though most of us could have predicted the result days in advance, it was nevertheless a really exciting game to watch. Beauden Barrett at number 10 for the Hurricanes made a superb return to form from injury which must have been of great comfort to All Black selectors, but four players in particular for me really stood out once again and surely must have cemented their role in the All Blacks’ plans for England come September. TJ Perenara at scrum half was simply fantastic while Ma’a Nonu after a few dips in form in an otherwise stellar season was back to his absolute best. Ardie Savea at openside flanker has been a complete revelation for me this season and is surely an able replacement for All Black legend Richie McCaw when he retires after this World Cup. Savea’s speed, ball handling skills and sheer strength and tenacity have been a key platform in helping the Hurricanes reach the lofty heights they have this season. Expect to see him starting in the number 7 jersey for New Zealand a few times over the coming months. Lastly, a player who has truly stood out this season both on the wing and at fullback is Nehe Milner-Skudder who has more WOW factor than most countries would know what to do with. Although he didn’t actually score a try in this match he was intricately involved in all eight of the Hurricanes efforts. His speed, tacking and incredible offloading ability under pressure are breathtaking to behold. Once again we will definitely be seeing this gentleman in a black jersey over the coming months.
Despite being up against a truly world-class Hurricanes side which as I say is for all intents and purposes an All Black “experimental 15” the Highlanders despite resting some of their All Black contingent were no slackers on the day and managed to score three well worked tries of their own and still remain in the hunt for a Super Rugby playoff spot. They were always competitive and at several points in the game had the ascendancy and never looked down and out. Ultimately however the Hurricanes were just too good and too polished, as a full strength side took on a willing but under strength one. It was really only in the final 15 minutes that the Hurricanes slammed the door on the Highlanders and stole the match. The Highlanders may have lost the match but the despite the scoreline they held their own for long enough to ensure that their ambitions in the competition are still very much alive. The question ultimately still remains though, after this weekend who really can stop the Hurricanes? To be honest, at home in Wellington I think they will prove to be untouchable while the All Black selectors luxuriate in a wealth of choice that is surely the envy of the rest of the world.
Cheetahs vs Waratahs
Final Score – Cheetahs 33/Waratahs 58
Once again to a large extent a fairly predictable result here. The Cheetahs at home are always a brave and resilient side and there was plenty of evidence of this legacy last Saturday in Bloemfontein, so much so that at a half time it was almost possible to believe that an upset was in the making as the score was only 29-21 in the Waratahs favour. What would ultimately cost the Cheetahs however was a complete defensive breakdown in the second half, which allowed the Waratahs a succession of easy tries. The Cheetahs defense by the end of the match was in such disarray that even their own fans were shocked to see a Cheetahs player resort to a cheap football style blatant trip on the Waratahs’ danger man Israel Folau in a futile attempt to stop him completing a hat trick of tries.
The win sealed the Waratahs’ place at the top of the Australian conference and with an easy game against one of Australia’s weakest team the Reds next weekend, it is fairly certain that the Waratahs will remain in this position. Despite an increasingly porous defensive game there was some heart from the Cheetahs and some cheer for the Springboks as Cornal Hendricks made a dramatic return to form scoring two superb tries for the South African side. But other than that there really wasn’t much to get excited about as a Cheetahs fan. Even superstar fullback Willie le Roux was ominously quiet and let’s be honest from a Springbok perspective there hasn’t been much to get excited about in the last year from this exceptionally talented player as he continues an alarming dip in form, even allowing for injury problems this year. It is hoped that for the Springboks Le Roux will make his comeback in the upcoming Rugby Championship and carry this through into South Africa’s World Cup campaign as they desperately need his skill set.
As for the Waratahs, once they figured out how to run the Cheetahs ragged they were a composed and ruthless side who especially in the second half kept up relentless pressure on their South African opponents. Folau was provided with ample space to run and weave his way through a disorganised and lacklustre Cheetahs defence. Although his performance was hailed by many as a prime example of why he is such a dangerous player for both the Waratahs and Australia, I couldn’t help feeling that up against a quality side we wouldn’t have seen nearly as much of Folau as we did last Saturday. So far this season he hasn’t really stood out for me and continues to display many of the qualities that often make him so quiet in a Wallaby jersey despite his considerable talents. He was good in Bloemfontein because his teammates were particularly effective and giving him space and dismantling a weak defence. If the Waratahs go up against the Hurricanes in the playoff stages I would hazard a guess that Folau will have a much harder day at the office than he did in Bloemfontein.
As always for me this season one of the standout players was Adam Ashley-Cooper for the Waratahs and it will be interesting to see if he can translate his superb form onto the world stage with the Wallabies. He is playing some of the best rugby I have ever seen him play in the last year, and will be a potent attacking threat that other teams will have to work hard to neutralize. There were also stellar performances from Hooper at flanker resulting in a try of his own, while Matt Carraro had a superb afternoon on the wing with two tries. Kurtley Beale for the Waratahs is having an outstanding season at centre and his distribution and line breaks were instrumental in setting up a number of the Waratahs tries. He has definitely had a form season this year and more important from a Wallaby perspective has for the most part demonstrated a solid consistency in using his talents week after week. Lastly the halfback partnership of Bernard Foley and Nick Phipps was highly effective and resulted in a try for Foley and in my opinion should be the pairing of choice for Wallaby coach Michael Cheika, even though they benefit from his coaching at the Waratah level. I can’t help feeling that they are calmer and more consistent under pressure than the Brumbies partnership of Nic White and Christian Lealiifano.
So in short a superb performance from the Waratahs that clearly showed why they have got to where they are this season and makes them not only a contender for the title this year, but also provides Wallaby selectors and national coach Michael Cheika with lots of options.
Stormers vs Lions
Final Score – Stormers 19/Lions 19
As mentioned earlier the Stormers HAD to win this to clinch the South African conference and more importantly get themselves a home semi-final. South African teams have had a poor go of it on the road in this year’s competition and in order for them to progress beyond the semi-final stage I can’t help feeling that without a home semi-final their chances are slim to nonexistent, especially given the fact that they would most likely be playing this year’s juggernaut the Hurricanes in Wellington. The Stormers managed to win the South African conference through an intensely physical and classic South African derby encounter.
At the end of the match as a spectator you almost felt you had to check yourself for bruises. It may not have been the most exciting game but there was heroism in defence and a physicality to the game that was downright brutal at times. One thing South African teams haven’t lost is the ability to provide the most intense physical challenge on the planet, and this was in evidence by the bucketload in Cape Town. Despite lacking their inspirational Captain Duane Vermeulen due to injury, the Stormers never let up once for the full eighty minutes and Springbok supporters must have been heartened by the physical presence and courage shown by Vermeulen’s replacement Nizam Carr who had a fantastic game and scored a well-earned try of his own. The Stormers to a man played a solid game and perhaps the only weak link in their armor was replacement fly half Kurt Coleman who had a poor afternoon with the boot after being called on to replace Demetri Catrakilis after he retired early on when floored by a massive tackle. There were also numerous sightings of Schalk Burger developing a full head of steam and bludgeoning his way through a resolute Lions defence. It was a match in which no quarters were given and players on both sides gave everything they had.
But in a game that was more of a wrestling match at times than anything else the moment that stood out was a bit of magic from diminutive Stormers fly half Cheslin Kolbe. Despite his small stature the fullback has played well above his weight all season and never shies from the physical aspect of the game. His superb chip and chase that resulted in the try by Nizam Carr was pure genius and a masterful display of hand and footwork matched to superb speed. In terms of sheer physicality though the man of the match for me was Eben Etzebeth whose strength was superhuman in defence as he consistently held up wave after wave of Lions players trying to breach the Stormers line. There is no doubt that Etzebeth will play an enormous role in the Springboks campaigns in the Rugby Championship and World Cup.
The Lions for their part matched everything the Stormers threw at them for the full eighty minutes and their never say die attitude which has been on display all season was there for everyone to see. As the final whistle blew you felt yourself collapsing with the players on the field. It was a powerhouse game of rugby which surely must have given South Africa’s opponents on the world stage much food for thought. While the draw means that it now will be very difficult for the Stormers to realistically take their campaign beyond the semi-finals, it has shown that South Africa has much to work with. With injury concerns to some of their key players, particularly Duane Vermeulen, surely the focus of South African rugby must now switch to reflecting on a hard-fought Super Rugby campaign, and building a strong injury-free Springbok side for the Rugby Championship and World Cup. While this may ultimately mean that for all intents and purposes despite winning the South African conference the Stormers Super Rugby campaign is essentially over, sometimes it is more important to focus on the bigger picture. We wait and see if common sense and the greater cause will prevail!