This year it seems like a totally different competition with lots of new players entering the fray. That’s of course apart from the fact that the format changed yet again culminating in a tournament that will finish in August.
It is early days and way too soon to make any real deductions from these matches but there were a few things that stood out for me.
Blues –as always- looks formidable and real dangerous with the ball in hand. They did however struggle to handle pressure and the way to beat them might be to push them into the corners and apply pressure with box and stab through kicks behind the backline. Their defence seemed solid enough but then the Crusader backline did not impress without Carter. I thought that the Blues game came apart when inside centre Stanley got replaced with Weepu. The backline then started to play lateral and lost that directness on attack. That took Ranger and kie out of the match.
Teams will have to keep it tight against the Blues or they’ll run you rugged. Crusaders were very lucky to pull off a win but demonstrated once again what a classy outfit they are. They have that ability to win matches even if they don’t play particularly well.
I did not see much of the Brumbies/Force game but the Brumbies look like a team on the up with some new talent in the backline and clearly starting to develop some structure in the forwards. Force is the same old same old; posing a challenge but just not good enough to go all the way.
The Bulls and Sharks both showed signs of rustiness but got better as the game progressed. Bulls forwards showed signs of a pack that could develop into an impressive unit. Jandre Kruger was good in the line-out and it looked like the Bulls might be OK without Matfield in that department. I was also impressed with the work rate and ball carrying contributions of the two Bulls props. In contrast with the forwards the Bulls backline looked less fluent. It was Hougaard and Morné Steyn who were unable to get the backline moving. Hougaard as a player always impress me with his ability to run onto the ball, his work rate and his defence. He is a nippy character and a type of player who constantly asks questions from the opposition but as a playmaker he is not yet in the same class as FdP, for me. This is Hougaard biggest challenge I believe as he matures and lose that extra yard of pace. I am waiting to see if he develops into a player who can read a game and who has the ability to keep the pack on the front foot and vary his game in a way that keeps the opposition guessing. He made one or two little snipes but in general did not vary his game to the same extent that was so typical with FdP at his best.
In terms of the Sharks I thought they looked competitive in the first half but seemed to fade away in the second half. Michelak was under constant pressure due to the fact that the forwards rarely got continued ascendency at the rucks and tackle ball. JP Pietersen was a surprise on outside centre for me. I liked the way he put Mvovo into space with a nice little in and out and a good timed pass. Certainly the best outside centre play in that one move that I’ve seen for years from outside centres in SA. Too early to tell whether he’ll make it in that position on the big stage but there was a bit of promise; a touch of class reminiscent of what I’ve seen from Bruce Robertson in 1976.