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Emirates Lions Team © Gallo Images

First week suggests business as usual

There has been a lot of talk about the prospects of the Emirates Lions disintegrating and the Cell C Sharks or DHL Stormers displacing them as the top South African team, but the first weekend of Vodacom Super Rugby suggests it will be business as usual in 2018.

It’s always a bad idea to read too much into the first week of the competition, or even the first couple of weeks. Remember how the Stormers got off to a flyer last year and were unbeaten, boasting six wins in six starts, when the Easter weekend arrived. But then they lost the zip and the confidence of their opening run at home and ended up having a mediocre season.

But certainly the first 80 minutes of Super Rugby provided a positive message to Lions supporters who perhaps were fearing that the loss of Johan Ackermann as coach will mean a shift away from the strong competitiveness of the past few seasons. That could still happen, but on the evidence of their win over the Sharks, a result that was more comfortable for them than the end score might suggest, they should still have the edge over their Durban rivals.

The Sharks set great store on a fast start to the season. They picked warm-up games that would ensure they would be sharp at the off, and it was important for them to send out a clear message against a team that has dominated them in this competition for a couple of seasons. Unfortunately for them though the message drummed out in the Currie Cup final still pertains – if you have a tight five that gets dominated, you are going to struggle.

It always seemed a bit odd that the Sharks opted to play Beast Mtawarira off the bench in such an important game. Perhaps he is short of match fitness, but the time to make a statement in the set pieces and set the tone for the match is early on. When Mtawarira did come on, the Sharks had spent so much time back-pedaling in the scrums that the die was cast and the Lions always had the key edge when it came to go-forward and confidence.

Perhaps the pre-match prediction that the man they might end up missing the most this season could be the now overseas-based Etienne Oosthuizen was on the mark. Both Stephan Lewies and Ruan Botha play well individually in the Sharks second row, but they look like two No 5s playing together, and the pack lacks the grunt that Oosthuizen provided.

That might sound odd if you consider Oosthuizen was so often pilloried for mistakes and giving away penalties, but perhaps in retrospect the big man living on the edge made the Sharks pack of 2017 more formidable. Oosthuizen never played in the Currie Cup and the pack has arguably not had the same teeth since he departed.

Conversely, the Lions pack still look the formidable unit they were last year and the season before that, with Malcolm Marx starting off the season the way he ended the last one. Franco Mostert was a bit quiet by his standards and Warren Whiteley needs game-time at Super Rugby, but the pack as a whole were significantly better than their opponents.

The local unit that should challenge them this year are the Stormers, and JD Schickerling confirmed with his man-of-the-match performance against the Jaguares that there is plenty of depth at the Cape franchise. The Stormers have experienced a crippling run of injuries and it worsened on the eve of the game when hooker Bongi Mbonambi was ruled out after undergoing an emergency appendectomy.

Wilco Louw was taken off halfway through the game due to stiffness and a need to manage him ahead of the overseas tour, and perhaps that contributed to the horrible second-half fade that the Stormers experienced and which was also perhaps a little too reminiscent for Stormers fans of seasons past.

Both the Stormers and Western Province have tended to make a habit in recent seasons of setting up well in the first half and not following through. There were too many points left on the table in the first 40 minutes, and another old habit of the Stormers, which is a tendency to be frenetic and force play too much on attack, was present then too. The Stormers should have been out of sight at halftime.

That they weren’t was partially down to their lack of ruthlessness and also due to the fact that after halftime they had a young pack on the field. Then when Ramone Samuels, who started instead of Mbonambi, was yellow carded, the Stormers were down on numbers at forward just when the Jaguares were fighting back and getting their second wind.

Full marks then to them for showing the character they did in standing up to the Jaguares onslaught in those last minutes and then turning it around with a telling scrum that will do wonders for the likes of young tighthead debutant Carlu Sadie and the other players involved.

For the Jaguares it was also unfortunately a case of the same old story of seasons past repeating itself. They were let down by indiscipline in the first half, with one of the Stormers tries being scored while Joaguin Tuculet was serving time in the sinbin, and they also gave away too many penalties, some of them at crucial times late in the game.

The Jaguares have often tended to challenge strongly and come close in away games against teams like the Stormers, but the actual winning of the game remains a bridge too far. On the weekend’s evidence, and the Jaguares were spectacularly poor in that first half, that will continue in 2018.


DHL Stormers 28-20 Jaguares

Emirates Lions 26-19 Cell C Sharks


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