Expansion has weakened tournament

MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day newspaper, says the catfight in Bloemfontein was an appalling display unworthy of Super Rugby.

Being at Newlands for the Stormers and Highlanders match was painful, but it was not nearly as painful as watching the 80 minutes between the Cheetahs and Lions in Bloemfontein.

The Cheetahs and Lions previously combined to play as the Cats in Super Rugby and they were awful. On the evidence of this season, and in particular Saturday’s match, one can see why these two teams would be no better if the talent was combined as one entity.

Neither deserves to play in Super Rugby and this match again highlighted the flaws in the tournament’s expansion. More teams have weakened the tournament and created a definite second tier. The Cats and the Lions and Cheetahs as individual entities have always flopped and it isn’t going to get any better.

The Lions, after the recent financial investment, have the means to buy a team after the World Cup (when players have come off contract) to challenge for the play-offs. The Cheetahs don’t have such a luxury and their playing in Super Rugby every year in front of a half-empty stadium serves no one.

It was a poor match in which the Lions deserved to win even if the Cheetahs had chances to crush their spirits after a few close misses this season. Rugby is about taking opportunities and also about making tackles. The Cheetahs were appalling in applying either aspect of the game. They did not show the commitment of a team desperate for the first win of the season. In the first 18 minutes they missed 11 tackles, with Ashley Johnson’s straight up miss on Doppies le Grange the most damaging as it led to the Lions’ first try.

Johnson, a midweek Springbok two years ago, was all bluster and thunder but he lacked precision and poise and his enthusiasm in wanting to carry the ball should not mitigate an evening in which his mistakes cost his team a win.

The Lions’ lack of execution comes with a lack of confidence from not winning, but there are also limitations in the quality of players. To have had so much possession and made so many line breaks and to be up against the most charitable of defences — and still be trailing on the hour — says more about the Lions than the result, although you won’t get a Lions supporter who will give a toss about how the Lions’ first Super Rugby win since March 2009 was manufactured.

The Lions won a game, but Johnson was the architect of their victory. His early try- leaking tackle was inexcusable, but so was his losing the ball in going for a try that would have taken the Cheetahs two scores in front at a time when there was still eight minutes to be played with a one-man advantage.

There were other mistakes from Johnson in the last three minutes with the Cheetahs chasing victory, but none were as monumental as the missed tackle and dropped grounding of the ball.

The lack of respect for the ball and the apathetic approach to discipline were secondary only to the disregard for basic game management. A draw would have been the most applicable result in a match where neither side showed the pedigree to match the hype around the player excellence in this tournament.

In Cape Town 24 hours earlier the Stormers produced another agonising 80 minutes of torture in failing to score a try and never looking capable of doing so. One Gio Aplon run aside, this was a second-rate fixture in which the players couldn’t even hit the target in the several punch-ups.

Newlands, renamed DHL Newlands, is more now like the House of Pain — and it is not because of the pain being inflicted on the opposition. The 32 000 who paid to watch should get a refund.

The Sharks predictably provided the South African rugby highlight in getting five league points in Melbourne, even if they only played for five minutes. Okay, they put in a good 15 minutes and that was enough to dismiss the Rebels.

Don’t dismiss the closeness of the result. Playing in Australia has always been a problem for the Sharks, who before their wins against the Force and Rebels had won just five times in 24 matches in Australia.

Coach John Plumtree believes it is because his players never show the Australian players the respect they do the New Zealanders.

The Sharks are in New Zealand to play the Chiefs and it should be three from three on form, pedigree and respect to the opposition. Elsewhere the South African tournament challenge does not look as imposing, even if the derby element remains as bruising.