Percy Montgomery and AJ Venter powered the Sharks to victory in round one of the Vodacom Super 14 as the old brigade stood tallest.
Venter’s leadership and general display was the most powerful reminder that experience is a marathon and can’t be fasttracked to a sprint. The Sharks, in 2005, suffered because of a lack of leadership and experience. Young players stumbled more than they soared and if the Sharks are to offer any sort of a challenge on the road it is imperative that Venter, Montgomery and a fit-again John Smit all play consistently on tour.
Montgomery’s display at flyhalf was typical of his talent. He remains one of the most gifted footballers to ever play for South Africa and the manner in which he slotted into the pivotal position and controlled the match should be inspiring to all South African supporters. In the next few months Monty will wear the Sharks strip, but from June onwards his colour coding will primarily be green. We need to appreciate his talents and forgive him the one match in five shocker.
The most capped Bok backline player of all time did not have a good end of year tour, but exhaustion and issues away from the field contributed to a poor tour. On Saturday night he showed what a good rest and the comforts of being at home again can do for a player. Ruan Pienaar’s individual moment of brilliance turned the match, but it was Monty’s control that won it for the Sharks.
Overseas, George Gregan got the better of Matt Henjack, Wendell Sailor was a revelation in a blue jersey against his old mates in maroon and Rueben Thorne was the best of a good Crusaders pack. Tana Umaga still showed up those a decade younger with his enthusiasm and Bill Young has now made it to 88 Super 14 matches. Not bad for a club seventh grader.
Elsewhere it was also the older brigade, in terms of experience and not necessarily age, showed why youth alone is insufficient a tool for Super 14 success. Derick Hougaard, a youngster in age but a veteran in experience, was outstanding against the Cheetahs, while his opposite number Meyer Bosman looked like a player involved in his first Super 14 game. Bosman had a comfortable introduction to test rugby against Wales, but followed that with a torrid match-up against the French. He will find the Super 14 closer to the night in Paris than the one in Cardiff.
Inexperience cost the Cheetahs, but the same cannot be said of the Cats. I tipped them to beat the Stormers, courtesy of their tight five and the rain. Well it rained, so at least the weatherman got it right. In the past the Cats have blamed playing in Bloemfontein for failure. They’ve blamed the Cheetahs players in the franchise for failure and they’ve blamed the competition draw for failure. It is time they start blaming themselves for the embarrassment they produced as a paid day’s work.
The Stormers, playing with greater purpose and structure, were dour but effective. They surprised me with their approach, but they played with a realism that has been lacking for the past two seasons.
The bones, in the build-up to round one, roared for the Cats and Cheetahs. All that saved the bones was the accuracy in backing a Sharks home success when no one outside of Durban was confident of Sharks victory.
Four right picks from seven in round one for the bones was adequate and about impressive as the general offering from the 14 teams. The Crusaders were organised and in control. The Hurricanes were rusty and then ruthless. The Blues were rudderless. The Chiefs were headless. The Reds were brave. The Waratahs were fortunate. The Cats were chaos. The Cheetahs were as good as they are going to get. The Force were passionate. The Brumbies were boring. The Highlanders were hammered. The Bulls were better than I thought they would be without Matfield and the front rowers. The Stormers were simple and successful and the Sharks were satisfyingly competent.
As for round one separating the champs from the chumps. It didn’t happen. We’ll need a few more rounds, a few more injuries and a few more away games to know who is a sprinter in this competition and who is a distance runner.