Clarity at the breakdown, reward for the attacking side and a sizzler in Bloemfontein were the stand out features in round one of the Super 14, writes Keo in his weekly Business Day column.
Six away wins also told its own story about the respective strengths and, as in most seasons, there is a distinct top six and bottom eight look about the sides.
Results aside, the weekend was glorious because of how the breakdown was officiated.
Last year no player wanted to carry the ball into contact, for fear of being isolated in the tackle and not having enough time to release the ball. That was the primary reason teams refused to risk attacking and relied instead on a kick and charge approach.
Last season everything favoured the defensive side and a low risk attitude. Tries were minimal, scores of 6-0 resurfaced, viewership dropped and Super Rugby was more like Super boring.
In round one we saw a massive improvement primarily because of the adjustment at the breakdown, which allows the tackled player to place the ball and demands of the tackler to allow for that. It has given the attacking player confidence again when going to ground and it has also freed up the static ball that was a feature of last season’s competition.
This past weekend was a bit like watching the early days of Super Rugby when attack was a more effective weapon than defence and tries were a greater reward than penalties.
The referees, for the most, got it right in round one, although the greatest irritant to spectators and coaches must be how referees coach and manage the flow of the game instead of applying the laws and whistling what they see in front of them.
If a player infringes, penalize him. Why warn him? It means the ill disciplined and clueless (when it comes to the basic laws of the game) get a free ride while the disciplined players get no reward for their application to the laws.
If a player is in front of the kicker, penalize him. Instead we get referees screaming out ‘freeze’. It is the same with a player going offside. Too often a player is guilty but the referee cautions him to get back onside, when he simply should be penalizing the player.
Defending champions the Bulls were impressive in Bloemfontein, but it needed an equally positive approach from the Cheetahs and an outstanding refereeing performance from Jonathan Kaplan to allow for the 51-34 spectacle.
Kaplan was decisive, calm and appreciative of the positive intent of both teams. The Bulls, so often criticized as one-dimensional, are everything but that. We saw it last season when they produced the most stunning and ruthless display in the final and very little seems to have changed in between seasons.
Morne Steyn gets better as a flyhalf each time he plays and those who label him a kicking flyhalf need to open their eyes. He has balance and more strings to his bow than just kicking.
The usual suspects in the Bulls were good and perhaps this is the season when Bulls centre Wynand Olivier forces his way into the Test team as a regular starter. Oliver was outstanding in attack and defence and with Olivier, Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and Pierre Spies all operating at maximum it will take a very good team to beat the Bulls this season.
Of the overseas teams the Crusaders and Hurricanes will again lead the charge, while the Brumbies will be difficult to beat in Canberra, if not as difficult to overcome when in South Africa.
Very little seems to have changed with the Stormers and Lions, while the Cheetahs don’t have the depth to trouble too many teams. The Sharks were abysmal and while the weather was a contributing factor it is obvious something is not gelling in the Sharks set-up. They were diabolical in the pre-season and there was not much improvement against an equally out of sorts Chiefs. Neither side deserved to win in Durban.
The Stormers started with a flurry against the Lions and ended with a whimper. It is nothing new for the Stormers to lose second halves or go scoreless but if the Capetonians have serious aspirations of a winning the title they will need to be a darn side better than they were in Johannesburg.
They were poor and the Lions were even poorer. The excuse that this is an inexperienced Lions team is also nonsense. The side that played in Johannesburg was decidedly stronger than the one that beat Western Province in the final round of the Currie Cup.