Australian rugby fans need no reminding about the nightmare of last season.
In 26 matches between New Zealand and Australian teams, the Aussie sides failed to win a single match.
It continued a 32-match losing streak for Australian teams against their nearest neighbours stretching back to May 27, 2016. You wouldn’t believe if it wasn’t true.
New Zealand teams have won five of the last six Super Rugby titles – is there any reason to believe their strangle-hold on the tournament will be broken this year?
What did the first full weekend of matches reveal?
Hurricanes shocking start in Pretoria
This must go down as one of the biggest upsets in Super Rugby history and it will be tough to top this season.
It started in the third minute with a superb “chicken-wing” pass from Jesse Kriel to set up the opening try to Johnny Kotze to put the Bulls up 5-0.
But after Ricky Riccitelli and Wes Goosen crossed for tries to put the Canes 12-8 ahead it looked like business as usual.
Somehow the Bulls, through a combination of appalling defence from the Hurricanes and courageous attack from the forwards – lock Lood de Jager and prop Pierre Schoeman were the other tryscorers – made it 21-19.
The Canes seemed to tire very quickly in the Pretoria altitude but it still does not explain how the Bulls, who finished a staggering 38 log points behind the Wellington-based team last season, won this one.
Maybe the New Zealand teams aren’t as far ahead as we think?
Crusaders beat Chiefs in error-fest
This was a surprisingly poor game between last year’s champions, the Crusaders, and one of the likely challengers for their crown.
For an NZ derby the error count was atrocious – 15 dropped passes, three yellow cards, 19 penalties, four lost lineouts and 60 missed tackles!
On a positive note there were 198 runs, 1260 metres made, 13 line breaks and 28 off loads – but even with these attacking stats you could still understand All Blacks coach Steve Hansen picking up the phone to both camps to ask what’s going on.
In the end the Crusaders won it 45-23 and the crowd saw eight tries scored (plus a penalty try) but if the defenses of both these sides does not improve they may be on the losing side more times than not.
The hallmark to New Zealand’s success in Super Rugby over the last half-decade has been attacking flair built on a solid structure – but this for the most part was a structure-less rabble.
Of course non-NZ fans may just be clutching at straws here as the Highlanders-Blues match the previous day was outstanding and an example of just how good Kiwi rugby is.
But still worry signs for both the Saders and Chiefs camp. We’ll know more this weekend when the Chiefs head to Auckland and the Crusaders host the Stormers.
How's that for drama? Ned Hanigan surges over the line in the final play of #WARvSTO to win the match. #SuperRugby never fails to entertain; stick around for two more matches today on SS Action - #LIOvJAG & #BULvHUR pic.twitter.com/RqcIgWAl6L— Sky Sports Rugby (@SkySportsRugby) February 24, 2018
Waratahs get lucky
The most unlikely of heroes, and the most unlikely of Wallabies, Ned Hanigan popped up in the final moments to steal the Tahs a hardly deserved 34-27 victory.
It was a see-sawing match that would have fairly ended at 27-all but somehow Daryl Gibson’s much maligned sky blues came out on top.
There are high hopes for a NSW-led Aussie revival in Super Rugby this year and it’s certainly great to see Kurtley Beale back at the SFS in a quality backline – but at this point in time the pack does not look strong enough for a sustained title charge.
As for the Stormers they will greatly rue this one getting away as points on the road will be so important in the South African conference this season.
It’s rugby – but not how you know it.
After the well-intentioned but often stodgy Six Nations fare served up over the last month the Empire has struck back.
The new Super Rugby season has opened in New Zealand and with the best players from the strongest rugby nation on earth on show it’s no surprise that the rugby was, well, out of this world.
The skill, the pace, the entertainment value – breath taking.
Played at the enclosed Forsyth Barr Stadium on a perfect pitch for rugby Tana Umaga’s Blues tore into Aaron Mauger’s Highlanders.
Two old All Black team mates desperate to get one-up in the opening stoushes of the toughest pool of the best provincial rugby competition on earth (including the Champions Cup).
And the stars on show, many of the greatest players on earth – Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo and Liam Squire – and that’s just the Highlanders.
The Blues boasted Sonny Bill Williams, the Ioane brothers, Ofa Tu’ungafasi – and in an impressive start to the season, Warren Gatland Junior, Bryn.
And what a match they served up.
Nine tries, the lead constantly see-sawing, 1287 run metres (567 Highlanders, 720 Blues), ten linebreaks (4-6), 23 offloads (12-11) – and in the end a nailbiting finish with the home team edging it 41-34.
It’s Sevens Rugby played with 15-men.
The skill level, speed and accuracy – unbelievable.
After watching northern hemisphere “rugby” for the last few months it was as if someone had picked up the remote and hit fast forward.
But both teams did all this without sacrificing any of the cornerstones of the match.
The Blues and Highlanders were strong at the set piece – one lost lineout to the Blues the only blemish.
As All Blacks coach Steve Hansen constantly repeats, all the flick passes, cross field kicks and outrageous sidesteps would mean nothing without the forward platform up front.
New Zealand teams never forget that.
Just @Rieko_Ioane, Matt Duffie, and @SonnyBWilliams doing their best Sonny Bill Williams impressions... It's raining offloads in #HIGvBLU, live on SS Action now. 24-31 with half an hour left to play. #SuperRugby pic.twitter.com/yjSclwWXox— Sky Sports Rugby (@SkySportsRugby) February 23, 2018
That is the solid foundation on which the razzle dazzle is built.
Of course the difference can’t all be blamed on the north.
The weather plays a big part.
It’s much easier to hurl a long pass on a warm afternoon in Sydney than on a freezing Friday night in Swansea.
The firmness of the ground also makes a difference.
The sureness under foot allows the players to sidestep or swerve with a lot more confidence and also allows them to spring off a fraction of a second quicker.
That fraction of a section can make all the difference between getting through a gap and the gap closing.
In the northern hemisphere a player may choose just to truck it up, not because they don’t have the skill level to try anything else, but because due to the conditions they can’t risk an error.
Down south where there is a lot more confidence players will try that pass or chance their arm even close to their own tryline.
The other key point is the structures are right in New Zealand – both in coaching and contracting.
The big stars for the Highlanders were not the much vaunted All Blacks, Ben Smith was practically unnoticeable until the last ten minutes, but lesser known names like Tei Walden and Rob Thompson, both who scored two tries.
The pattern of play is so clear and the style of play so inherent that it’s easy to take one moving piece out and replace it with other.
New Zealand rugby is so strong overall, that they will function at the same high level.
Of course it’s not all rosey down south.
The Highlanders-Blues thrill fest was followed by the haphazard Queensland Reds versus Melbourne Rebels which was a stodgy as any match the north could ever come up with. Benetton v Zebre maybe?
It was hard to watch.
Error after penalty after wrong option – there was more handling mistakes in the first three minutes than there were in the entire Blues-Highlanders match.
There was even absurd refereeing decisions with Scott Higginbotham red-carded for an innocuous tackle while Lukhan Tui only sent to the sin-bin after driving Will Genia into the AAMI Stadium turf.
Nine and a half minutes into #REBvRED, and @Reds_Rugby skipper Scott Higginbotham has been shown a red card for this tackle. Can the @MelbourneRebels capitalise? SS Action now #SuperRugby pic.twitter.com/mlv0KQN56r— Sky Sports Rugby (@SkySportsRugby) February 23, 2018
But when the rugby is so poor often the refereeing becomes the focus.
It just shows that although the gulf between New Zealand rugby and the best from the north won’t be closing any time soon, the gap between NZ and its nearest neighbour Australia is even greater.
If Wallabies coach Michael Cheika watched both matches back to back – as he no doubt did – he has an even clearer idea of the monumental task in front of him.
Two hard fought contests in the South African conference kicked off this year’s Super Rugby on Saturday with the Stormers edging the Jaguares in Cape Town and the Lions outlasting the Sharks in Johannesburg.
Here are our takeaways from the opening day:
Could this be the year of the Jaguares?
After some enterprising attacking play in the first half, and some less than enterprising defence, the Argentine side found themselves down 22-6 early in the second half and with fullback Joaquin Tuculet in the bin.
With the Stormers threatening to run riot it looked like the Jaguares would follow the script of their first two years and fall apart as the game ran away from them.
But it looks like new coach Mario Ledesma has already made a difference.
This Jaguares outfit looked far superior in fitness to the 2016 and 2017 vintages and actually got stronger as the game wore on.
Their set piece also improved, especially the scrum, as they clawed their way back to 25-20 with ten minutes on the clock and if not for a Nicolas Sanchez pass that did not go to hand they may have pulled off a famous victory, before a late penalty to the hosts made it 28-20.
Some promising signs but they must build on these when they travel to Johannesburg next weekend to face the Lions.
As for the Stormers 20-year-old giant Cobus Wiese was impressive on the flank as was 19-year-old fly half Damian Willemse who made some thrilling long breaks and also landed 13-points with the boot.
It looks like the starting No10 spot will be his this year so look for big things from the Paul Roos old boy.
Lions just do enough
It was almost a carbon copy of the last time these two sides met in the quarter-final last year when the Lions edged it 23-21.
This time it was just as close although the score line flattered the home team a little at 26-19.
The Lions look to be relying on the same key players as the last few seasons – hooker Malcolm Marx, captain and No8 Warren Whiteley and lock Franco Mostert.
Flanker Kwagga Smith also seems to be growing in influence as he strives to put his red card in the final last season behind him.
Last year’s runners-up look a little light out wide and fly half Elton Jantjies had a mixed game, both with the boot and in general play, so that element of their game will need to improve if they are to challenge again this year.
For the Sharks they look blessed at No10 with both the starter Robert du Preez and the back up Curwin Bosch having excellent matches.
They may look to start the 20-year-old at full-back going forward to get him some more game time.