Blues vs Brumbies
The first four matches of the weekend all ended with defeat for the favourites. The Blues finally scored their first victory of the year when they held on to beat the Brumbies. Beginning with greater patience and a more solid defence, the Blues built up a useful lead in the first half, which proved to be just enough to hold off a dominant Brumbies in the second. Uncharacteristic Brumbies mistakes, allied to some strange decisions from referee Lees and a curiously indecisive and unconvincing display from Nick White were contributory factors to a poor first half for the Brumbies. Although there are still players out of position in the Blues backline and one wonders why Visinia and Saili are not starting, Dan Bowden has settled the line. For the Brumbies, Pocock was superb but Speight did not see enough of the ball. Injuries to Toomua and Sio could be costly. Blues 16 Brumbies 14.
Crusaders vs Highlanders
The Highlanders did not begin well and seemed overawed, particularly on defence. Neither side was good in the air and scrum halves Andy Ellis and Aaron Smith were guilty of poor kicking. No doubt, things will change when he is in an All Black jersey but Smith is way below par at the moment. Naholo helped himself to another brace of tries for the Highlanders and when the Crusaders lost Nadolo to injury, they offered little on attack and appeared to lose focus. McCaw and Carter are quite clearly not the players they once were but Taufua was once again impressive for the Crusaders. Crusaders 20 Highlanders 25.
Waratahs vs Stormers
This was a match won almost exclusively by intelligence vs the lack of it. Despite an early try by yet another massive islander wing, Naiyaravoro, the Waratahs struggled to impose themselves on a committed Stormers defensive effort. A try just before half time nosed them ahead but in the second half the poor thinking by captain and coach was ruthlessly exposed by the Stormers. The Waratahs insisted on ball in hand and persisted in passing the ball right on the gain line, in the teeth of an aggressive defence, which meant that they regularly lost ball. The inevitable result was four tries, all scored from deep in Stormers territory and three of them directly from Waratahs’ mistakes. Coached by the Wallaby coach, it seems inconceivable that the pedestrian, predictable Waratahs never attempted to come up with something different. The Stormers defence was excellent and de Jongh and de Allende in the centre were particularly effective. Waratahs 18 Stormers 32.
Force vs Cheetahs
Considering that this was a contest between two of the tailenders in this year’s competition, the standard of rugby was top class. Set phases were good on both sides and the scrums must have been a pleasure for referee Hoffman to control. Rolling mauls were also used to good effect and in the end it was probably only the much improved defence of the Cheetahs which won them the game. Petersen controlled the game well from flyhalf and Brussow’s defence was outstanding. For the Force, Haylett-Petty, Morahan, Ebersohn and Godwin all did well at the back and Wykes put in his usual sterling performance. Force 15 Cheetahs 24.
Lions vs Sharks
After last week’s debacle, this was a much better effort from a weakened Sharks team. However, defensive problems remain and the Lions eventually gained control just before half time, scoring three tries in rapid succession. Vorster is proving a great find at centre, Mnisi made an impact, while Combrinck, Mapoe and de Klerk produced good performances in the backs. Reinach was excellent for the Sharks in a number of areas. The Lions should have put this match away early in the second half but there were far too many silly mistakes and at the end, it was almost lost. Referee Berry’s assertion that he could do nothing when players complained of a laser being shone into eyes was extraordinary. Surely one stops the game, contacts security and the offender is located, removed and charged. Lions 23 Sharks 21.
Bulls vs Reds
The end score suggests that this match went as expected but the previously hapless Reds were competitive for long periods and but for incompetent officiating, it may have been close. One Bulls try was scored from a blatant forward pass and another was truly a dreadful decision when a player trapped on the ground was allowed to make four separate efforts to put the ball over the line, as he squirmed and scrambled, propelling himself with knees and elbows. Jacques du Plessis was allowed to float around offside for the majority of the match. Jaco Peyper is one of the twelve referees at this year’s world cup and Australia and New Zealand will be very nervous if he is given charge of one of their knockout games. The Reds finished slightly ahead in the scrums but, as so often, the Bulls dominated the lineouts. Kriel and Hougaard were their stars, while Gill, Genia and Slipper all did well for the Reds, who did manage four tries in defeat. Bulls 43 Reds 22.