Contenders and pretenders

Keo, in his Business Day column, writes of the familiarity of the opening round of Super 14.

One weekend does not make for a championship promise but the early signs are more than promising that there could be a South African presence in the Super 14 final later this year.

And that presence will come from Durban. The Sharks are a damn good side and they showed the one-eyed Capetonians just how good they are with a win that was far more impressive than the five-point differential.

The Stormers got a losing bonus point, but if they are to take comfort from their performance then talk of a championship title is delusional. Had this game been played in Durban the difference would have been 20 points. In fact it should have been 20 points in Cape Town.

The Sharks, despite three missed penalties in the first half, dominated the collisions and dictated where the game was being played. The momentum was with the Durbanites from the opening minute and even when they trailed 10-nil after 40 minutes they had the advantage because they were the ones making the play and the Stormers were the ones having to make the tackles.

Teams forced to defend for sustained periods usually take a beating that isn’t always obvious to the eye, and for those who say the match was won because of a Sharks 20-point third quarter I say the match was won in the first half when the Sharks landed blows that were unrelenting and painful.

It was an important victory for the Sharks because it emphasized the quality of their squad. Away wins usually determine a home play-off advantage and home defeats are inevitably a death knell for championship pretenders. To be making these statements after just one round may seem outrageous, but the significance of this particular match cannot be overstated. If the Sharks could not beat the Stormers in Cape Town then what price on them winning a final away from home? Equally, if the hyped Stormers could not win at home playing to a capacity crowd, then what price of winning away from home in a final?

Saturday’s game answered a lot because it confirmed the Sharks to be contenders and the Stormers nothing more than pretenders who will win more than they lose this season, but they won’t win when it matters most.

Refreshingly, from a South African perspective, the match delivered more than typical South African derby physicality and the intensity was matched by individual skill, awareness and a willingness to offload in the tackle.

The decision-making was not always accurate but at least there was evidence of thinking. It hasn’t always been this way in South African match-ups.

Elsewhere in the competition the first round proved predictable, with the early matches on Friday offering too much of the basketball-type exhibitionism that so rankles the northern hemisphere purists, who rightly argue that for the game of rugby union to be beautiful one team has to attack and the other has to defend. When no one defends it is basketball and there was very little defending in Dunedin and in Johannesburg.

The opening round also reiterated the view that this is not so much a competition about 14 super teams, but a two-tier league in which six realistically challenge for a top four and eight make up the numbers.

One week into the tournament and you can pick three of the four semi-finalists in the Sharks, Waratahs and Crusaders, with the Brumbies, Stormers and Hurricanes the likeliest contenders for the fourth place. And to be able to do that is an indictment of the staleness of the tournament.

Individually, Crusaders captain Richie McCaw was monumental in the defeat of the Chiefs. McCaw made 23 tackles and won numerous turnovers and his only blemish was fluffing a try-making offload.

If McCaw, the All Blacks captain, was huge in Christchurch then his Springbok counterpart, John Smit, was as prominent in Cape Town, as were Stirling Mortlock and George Smith in Dunedin and Fourie du Preez in Pretoria.

The old faces dominated at the weekend and that completed the predictability of the opening round because this tournament needs a youthful injection and new superstars as much as it needs a revamp in structure.