Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Phew … job done.
Those are likely to have been the dominant sentiments of
Lions coach Swys de Bruin and his Stormers counterpart Robbie Fleck after the
franchises got their Super Rugby 2018 campaigns off to winning starts on
Far from flawless in either the Ellis Park or
Newlands triumphs, both teams were pushed hard - by the Sharks and Jaguares
respectively - in round one and would not have shed too many tears about
earning “standard” victories rather than ones with bonus points.
The Lions, tournament runners-up for each of the last two
seasons, were camped on their own line when the final whistle sounded on a
compelling derby (26-19), the Sharks having the well-earned consolation of a
losing log point for ending within seven points.
If anything in Cape Town, where a disappointing first-day
crowd of 18 000 would have sent a shiver down the spines of officials at
crisis-plagued WP Rugby, the 28-20 outcome slightly flattered the Stormers, who
had to repel a fierce second-half onslaught from the Argentineans.
Certainly the better game - no surprise considering the
later start on the Highveld and the gruelling afternoon heat further south? -
was the all-SA affair, leaving many observers, no doubt, steadfast in their
belief that the Lions and Sharks may very well carry our flag the most
spiritedly in the competition this year.
Yes, the men from Durban are nought from one, but will
hardly be discouraged at this infant stage after going toe to toe with Warren
Whiteley’s outfit, and have a fortnight now to sharpen up for the visit to the unenviable
KwaZulu-Natal summer humidity of the Waratahs as they are the only side on a
bye next weekend.
They will also be mindful that if they could run the Lions
so close in the Big Smoke, there is every reason to feel hopeful they can level
things up in the home return fixture in late June.
Although there were other, pleasing aspects to Saturday’s
bruising but high-tempo tussle, it basically boiled down, in the final
analysis, to the clear superiority of the Lions scrum being enough to trump the
dominance of the Sharks’ lineout.
The hosts made a massive statement, even while some
spectators were probably still taking their seats, with an immediate, demon
scrum, burly Lions loosehead prop Jacques van Rooyen (on his 50th
appearance) crumpling backwards poor Thomas du Toit, who also prefers that
berth but is having to make a fist of filling the Coenie Oosthuizen void at
Although the visitors clawed back a semblance of stability
in that area at times afterwards, the overall Lions mastery of that set-piece
was nevertheless a key influencer in the final outcome.
But with towering captain Ruan Botha to the fore as a
wrecker/interceptor of the Lions’ plans on their own throw, the lineouts were
monopolised by the Sharks to ensure they kept a pretty firm foothold on the
Both teams also left a few points out there, with flyhalves
Robert du Preez (otherwise a constructive menace with his strong, flat running)
and Elton Jantjies botching important place-kicks.
Perhaps the best summary of the match is to venture that the
Lions did enough to serve notice that they intend being at the races right to
the end again in 2018, despite some understandable suggestions that Johan
Ackermann and others moving away from the franchise might see a noticeable downturn.
Having Whiteley back at both their spiritual and game-plan
coalface made a big difference - the Bok captain is still short of a gallop but
produced clever touches and showed customary composure and good judgement - and
De Bruin and his lieutenants in the booth would have been chuffed by the
emergence of some Young Turks as well.
It was tough having to start the season without seasoned
wings Courtnall Skosan and Ruan Combrinck, but there was crackle and pop in
abundance from rookie replacements Aphiwe Dyantyi (especially) and Sylvian
Both did more than enough - Dyantyi, 23, notched an early
candidate for a tries-of-the-season package - to suggest that the jerseys are
in sound hands until the more seasoned characters return to contention.
One concern for the gallant, ceaselessly grafting losing
side was the surrender to injury during the contest of No 8 Dan du Preez (his
shoulder or upper arm looked in some discomfort) and scrumhalf Cameron Wright.
Du Preez’s twin brother Jean-Luc is due back some time in
March, so that is a reasonable compensating thought, but if Wright has more
than a niggle, it will be a worry: the Sharks are already low on No 9s with
Louis Schreuder on the crocked list.
Speaking of setbacks, Stormers mastermind Fleck has a real
issue with experienced tight forwards - the lack thereof, right now - as the
so-so triumph over the Jaguares saw further unsettling developments in that
As the Stormers prepare to set off on their three-match Australasian
tour, they were already in a position, pre-Jaguares, where Eben Etzebeth,
Pieter-Steph du Toit, Frans Malherbe and Scarra Ntubeni couldn’t begin the
campaign, and then first-choice hooker Bongi Mbonambi was a Friday pull-out for
Fast-emerging Bok tighthead Wilco Louw was already walking a
tightrope after a hip problem, and the fact that he did not emerge for the
second half at Newlands - novice Carlu Sadie fared well enough on debut -
seemed to suggest all is not hunky-dory with him, either.
As things stand, and primarily because of the ongoing
absence of several “hardebaarde”, the Stormers look as though they might do
well to earn even one victory abroad, from dates with (in order) the Waratahs,
Crusaders and Highlanders ...
fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, February 23
Highlanders v Blues - 08:35
Rebels v Reds - 10:45
Saturday, February 24
Sunwolves v Brumbies - 06:15
Crusaders v Chiefs - 08:35
Stormers - 10:45
Lions v Jaguares - 15:05
Bulls v Hurricanes - 17:15
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