Around the grounds
On Friday, defending champions the Chiefs got the Kiwi conference off to a flying start against the Crusaders in Christchurch as new recruit Robbie Fruean scored a stunning solo try against his profligate former employers, who missed seven kicks. Over in boggy Bloemfontein, the Cheetahs overcame the Bulls in a sludgy game dominated by the boot.
Saturday saw Benji Marshall make his Blues (who were wearing white) bow from the bench and set up a try in a spirited but unsuccessful comeback after trailing the Highlanders 24-0 at the break.
Over the Tasman, Quade Cooper was in sensational form as the Reds got off to a flyer against the Brumbies in Canberra. Jesse Mogg fluffed his lines in the dying minutes, missing a penalty to level the scores and shelling a high ball to gift the visitors a last minute try that denied his side a bonus point.
In Durban, the Springbok-laden Sharks secured their second win of the season as their pack out-muscled the Hurricanes, while Marnitz Boshoff carried the Lions to an emphatic win over the Stormers.
We had to wait until Sunday for the weekend’s highest-scoring game as Israel Folau picked up from where he left off last year, notching a hat-trick as the strongly-fancied Waratahs downed the Force in Sydney.
Folau was on the scoresheet within a minute, while Kurtley Beale also opened his ‘Tahs account and the wonderfully-named winger Alofa Alofa continued his meteoric rise.
In other news, SANZAR confirmed their plans to expand the competition to 17 franchises, including one from Argentina, from 2017. Chiefs boss Dave Rennie has been vocal in his opposition for the enlargement, citing issues of player welfare and a dilution of quality as potential pitfalls.
Elsewhere, Jerome Kaino is expected to return to the Blues this week after his club, Toyota, were knocked out of the Japanese Championship over the weekend, while Digby Ioane is said to be seeking a return to Australia in search of home comforts and Berrick Barnes has refused to rule out a return from Japan in 12 months in an 11th hour bid to secure a seat on the Wallabies’ plane to England for the World Cup.
Week to remember for
It would be easy to say the ever-excellent Folau but a doff of the chapeau must go to Boshoff, who isn’t even the Lions first choice 10, for a flawless kicking display (notching three drop goals and six penalties) that more than made up for his side playing a quarter of the game with men in the bin.
Week to forget for
You’d forgive the Crusaders pack for waking up seething on Saturday morning. They dominated the Chiefs in the scrum and at the lineout, where they won four against the throw. They earned their team 66 per cent of the possession and bossed the penalty count 15-8. Their reward? Nada. Tyler Bleydenhaal was dragged off at half-time having missed five penalties and Tom Taylor missed two more after the break to leave the total of squandered points at 21. To rub salt into their wounds, Aaron Cruden added the extras to James Lowe’s last minute intercept try to deny them a consolation bonus point. Life’s not fair, is it?
Try of the week
Could have gone to Fruean for a superb solo effort, the Blues’ Francis Saili for his audacity or Folau’s first, which was a superb team try, but the gong has to go to Reds’ Aidan Toua. The full back latched on to the flattest of Cooper passes, cutting a wonderful line and setting off on a rapid run, dissecting the Brumbies’ bewildered backline as he went.
It’s difficult to know whether to give this to the Crusaders’ hapless kickers or Mogg for his late fumble that handed Chris Feauai-Sautia the match-sealing and bonus-point denying try. We’ll go with Mogg who, despite scoring a try amid 14 points of his own, endured a grim night. Not only did he fail to take the simplest of kick-offs under no pressure but he was sold a dummy by Toua for his try and missed the key kick to level the scores.
Ewen McKenzie has plenty to be optimistic about. Despite his injury scare in pre-season, Cooper looked in fine fettle, while Beale, Folau and Nick Cummins were all on the scoresheet. The performances of Toua and Reds debutant Lachie Turner were pleasing, while Tahs’ youngsters Alofa Alofa and Will Skelton, a plundering giant of a lock, gave an exciting glimpse into the future.