Kiwi sides early pace-setters

2012-03-14 14:24
Sport24 columnist Alan Solomons (File)
While the opening rounds of Super Rugby have dished up a mixed bag of some good and some decidedly average play, it is to be expected as it’s early days in the tournament. Players and referees are reacclimatising to the law applications.

The strict refereeing of the breakdown has certainly impacted the quality of the matches so far. The breakdown has always been a grey area to officiate as the action there happens in the blink of an eye.

The referees have been very strict on players going off their feet and sealing off. Because of the players’ apprehension around the breakdown area, teams are doing a lot more kicking. However, as soon as things settle down, a more attacked-mind approach will be possible.

Despite a high number of tactical kicks, there has still been a good flow and tempo to most of the games thus far. As the tournament progresses we will see further improvement in this respect.

The Stormers have impressed me most in the South African Conference and find themselves in pole position. The Stormers have always been a very good defensive side - and there’s no questions it will be a strong feature of their game again this season.

They will be aiming to build on their momentum on Friday evening against a Blues side who can never be taken lightly - as the Bulls found to their detriment.

The Stormers boast a top-flight backline with plenty of strike power; however, their forwards have now also come to the fore. The likes of Siya Kolisi, Nick Koster and Eben Etzebeth, whom I rate as great prospects, are young guys who have imposed themselves upfront.

In the Stormers’ opening match, Bryan Habana did a decent job at centre, but I think he is best suited to the wing. Their best centre pairing is Juan de Jongh and Jean de Villiers.

While Gerhard van den Heever is an exciting youngster and some may say he’s unlucky to find himself on the bench, I believe he has to wait his turn behind two Springboks.

From a New Zealand perspective, the Highlanders have hit the ground running. I think the issue of the Otago Rugby Union going into liquidation has galvanised the whole franchise.

Jamie Joseph played under Laurie Mains so understands the history and culture of the region. He is doing a splendid job as coach. Joseph was a very physical, abrasive flank in his day and I think that approach has rubbed off on the side.

The Chiefs have also looked impressive and in the first three rounds, I would say that the New Zealand franchises have looked the strongest. They are exhibiting a very high skill level and their decision-making is top notch.

In my view, the Reds and Waratahs are the two teams most likely to battle it out for the title of Australian Conference winner. I think the other three will struggle.

As far as the Brumbies go, it’s been interesting to follow their early progress under Jake White. While they have two wins under their belt, I thought they were fortuitous in defeating the Cheetahs.

While there will be a South African influence; the Brumbies will by and large play to their traditional strengths. Stephen Larkham and George Gregan are doing the hands-on coaching there so I don’t think there will be a material change.

Jake’s approach with the Springboks was to play conservative Bulls-style rugby, which suited them. However, I don’t believe the Brumbies have the personnel required to employ that game, nor do I feel that style is ideally suited to Super Rugby.

Jake’s influence will be noticeable in them kicking more for territory and moulding a solid goal kicker.

Turning to a contentious moment, I thought the yellow card shown to Rene Ranger at the weekend was a bit harsh. He was fully committed in trying to stop Bjorn Basson from scoring. While he didn’t use his arms, I don’t believe there was any intent.

We saw the white card also introduced. I suppose it does have some merit in attempting to stamp out foul play. However, I’m not all together convinced about it as yet. We have to wait and let the tournament run its course, before a full review and evaluation can be done.

The off-field yellow card that can now also be issued can at times be harsh, but like the white card has its merits. It’s something new and time will tell whether it will prove successful.

Alan Solomons was assistant coach to Nick Mallett when the Springboks went 17 Tests unbeaten. He is currently EP Kings’ Director of Rugby and is a consultant to the IRB.

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