The Crusaders appear to be the benchmark all teams have to surpass to have a chance of winning the tournament. The New Zealanders ran out 43-25 winners over the Waratahs in Nelson to serve early notice of their credentials.
But that is hardly news as they look for a fourth consecutive championship, which would take their tally to 11 overall. The Crusaders have set the standard in this competition for nearly half of the 24 years it’s been played in the professional era, and 2020 appears no different.
In South Africa though, the Stormers showed why they could be contenders with an emphatic, but costly 27-0 win over an ill-disciplined Hurricanes at Newlands. Costly in the sense of the injuries they sustained. The visitors endured two yellow cards and could have been issued more if referee Jaco Peyper had been in a less lenient mood.
The New Zealand side were guilty of several off-the-ball infringements, which included a late hit on Stormers and Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi. Hurricanes hooker Ricky Riccitelli smashed into Kolisi’s knee well after the latter had passed the ball to a teammate.
The upshot was that Kolisi has suffered medial cruciate ligament (MCL) damage and hobbled off the field in the 25th minute. He is likely to miss at least six weeks of play, although a more accurate assessment can only be made after more medical tests.
“It is not an insignificant injury‚” Stormers coach John Dobson said in reference to Kolisi’s plight immediately after the match.
“It is a helluva blow in the first 25 minutes of the campaign‚ especially for what it means to the team on and off the field. Siya could face a grade two MCL which can be six weeks and it could be more serious than that. He will be out for a few weeks at least and I hope it is nothing more serious than that.”
Bok hooker Bongi Mbonambi also left the field early in the second half with a hamstring problem and outstanding flank Jaco Coetzee suffered a minor groin injury. Mbonambi is likely to miss the round two clash against the Bulls at Newlands, although Dobson was hopeful that Coetzee’s injury was not as serious.
The Stormers’ result and performance were magnificent but the injury toll after one game was a reminder of the attritional nature of the tournament and the price it exacts on players, teams and ultimately coaches.
But injuries aside, the Stormers showed that the blueprint the Boks used at RWC 2019 is worth pursuing at this level, especially when a team has a pack of the Stormers’ strength.
Mbonambi, Kolisi, Steven Kitshoff, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Frans Malherbe are all World Cup winners. With Boks such as Scarra Ntubeni and Wilco Louw coming off the bench, they used their pack to emasculate the Hurricanes.
The visitors had a potent backline on paper, but up front they lost the scrum battle. They were beaten at the breakdown and were second-best in contact. The Stormers’ kicking game was also smart, with World Cup-winning scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies showing what an improved tactician he is, to go with his naturally vibrant game. And the home team’s defence harked back to the miserly days of 2012 when newly appointed Bok coach Jacques Nienaber was the Stormers’ defence coach. They hardly gave the Hurricanes an inch of space.
It was the Hurricanes 170th Super Rugby fixture and only the second time they had been kept scoreless in a match. The other occasion was when they lost 11-0 to the Reds in 1999.
Dobson is a coach who values attacking rugby, but round one’s performance showed that attacking and scoring tries (the Stormers scored four), does not translate to throwing the ball around at all costs. Like the Boks, the Stormers based their dominance on the age-old foundations of set piece, territory, defence and physical dominance and built their attacks from that platform.
It was an impressive, polished and disciplined display and showed a side and a coaching staff respecting their strengths and playing to them. It was a good start, where they also maximised home ground advantage, but there is a long way to go yet.
“I was pleased with our dominance, but we left a lot of chances out there,” Dobson said. “I was a bit nervous going into the game because we had trained well, there was a good vibe in the team and the players were looking sharp, so the nerves I felt were because we only had something to lose, if you understand what I mean,” Dobson said.
“All our processes and the buy-in from the players were there. It was a seismic game because it showed this isn’t another false dawn for the Stormers.”
The Sharks edged the Bulls 23-15 in a scrappy encounter which was as much a reflection on the uncomfortable Durban humidity and playing competitive rugby in the height of summer as it was of both teams’ skill.
In many ways it was a typical South African derby blotted by too many errors. The forward packs just about neutralised each other while the boots of Curwin Bosch and Morne Steyn dictated.
The Sharks had more spark behind the pack and it showed when Junior Bok scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba scored a superb late try to ensure victory and deny the Bulls a losing bonus point.
The Lions, by contrast, were thrashed 38-8 by the Jaguares in Buenos Aires to send some early warning signs to the Ellis Park faithful that this season might be one of strife.
Winning in Argentina has never been easy as the Lions slumped to their fourth defeat in five outings in Buenos Aires. But it was the nature and margin of defeat that is worrying for the Lions.
The Jaguares gave away seven penalties in the first half and sustained a yellow card early in the second, yet they still looked the better, sharper and more composed team as they helped themselves to five tries.
Based on one week there is room for optimism in Cape Town and Durban and a lot of room for improvement in Pretoria and Johannesburg. In Christchurch, there is simply reason for massive confidence. DM