MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says the performances of South Africa’s flyhalves was the highlight of an absorbing weekend.
Elton Jantjies take a bow. So too Morne Steyn, Johan Goosen and Patrick Lambie.
Rarely has South African rugby been blessed with such youthful talent simultaneously in the most pivotal position.
Steyn is the old man among the generation of kids playing flyhalf in South Africa’s Super Rugby challenge, but he’s far from a pensioner and his second-half performance in beating the Sharks means that he won’t easily relinquish his ownership of the Springbok No 10 jersey.
Steyn was outstanding in the circumstances at Loftus but it was Jantjies who stood tallest at the weekend. He kicked a Super Rugby record nine penalties but he did much more than score 27 points. He played with a swagger that was encouraging. The bigger tests will come when the Lions go on the road, but there is no doubting his talent or his desire to be the best in the country.
Cheetahs teenager Johan Goosen is a special talent but he was second to Jantjies in Johannesburg. Lambie, the most complete of the lot, didn’t quite match Steyn’s tactical and goal-kicking precision, but he was very good in a losing cause.
The impact of the flyhalves was the most significant in a weekend when only the Stormers won comfortably and every other result was in the balance until the final whistle.
It was an absorbing opening weekend for Super Rugby and the most impressive aspect was the appetite of the players to tackle. The fitness and conditioning generally was good and the South African physicality was brutal in Pretoria.
Referee interpretation again dominated too many matches, especially at the breakdown, but it is custom in the first month of the competition.
There was far greater confrontation all-round and a surprising defiance, given it was only round one of the competition, to defend the tryline.
The Stormers had the easiest of the South African starts against a limited and inexperienced Canes, but even though they won easily there was little inspiration in the performance.
Schalk Burger’s injury – he will miss the next two months – adds to the complication of a Stormers season that will be far more demanding than the last two years.
The Sharks were a pre-season game shy in round one and it cost them victory in Pretoria. There will be criticism of the type of rugby played by both sides, but invariably when these two meet it is a war of attrition and not a celebration of rugby’s finer qualities.
The win was massive for the Bulls, as was the leadership of Pierre Spies, who is thriving on the additional responsibility.
Chiliboy Ralepelle also prospered from a quality off-season programme and he had the edge on Bismarck du Plessis, whose discipline failed him too often. Du Plessis is the best hooker in the world and with that tag comes unrelenting scrutiny. On this occasion he did not do his standing justice, but like the rest of the Sharks he will get better with more game time.
The Lions and Cheetahs both play with positive intent and the biggest improvement from a year ago is the structure in their defensive lines. This was the most entertaining of the South African matches, even if it lacked the drama of the Reds injury time win against the Waratahs, whose naivety in the final minute cost them victory.
The Reds aside, the threat out of Australia is negligible. The Force and Brumbies have the look of basement dwellers and among the Kiwi teams the Canes are probably the most limited.
The Crusaders, like the Reds, showed their class to sneak an away win against the ever under-achieving Blues, while the Chiefs don’t have the pack to match the star-studded backline.
The nature of the extended competition means coaches will be forced to manage players and rotate and teams will get beaten often, which isn’t a bad thing.
No team towers above the other, which is a tournament promoter’s dream and don’t be surprised if teams that win just 50% of their games feature in the top six play-offs later in the year.
In a post-World Cup year the emergence of new talent is always the highlight and South Africa’s youngsters, especially those playing at No 10, have already given us a reason to count down the hours till this weekend’s second round.