That was a good weekend of Super Rugby.
With the three expansion teams having a bye it was a throwback to yesteryear, with the level of competition a reminder of what it could consistently be like if the talent spread across the member nations was compressed into fewer teams.
Some good quality action, some real physical intensity, some spectacular tries and plenty of controversy to light up the message boards and social media.
That’s the stuff we know and love.
In no particular order, the best viewing came from the Sharks Lions, Crusaders Waratahs and Hurricanes Reds games, while the Chiefs v Bulls and Blues v Force games were hard fought, if not quite reaching the same level.
I imagine most of the fallout from the weekend in South Africa has centred on the Johannesburg clash, which was an absolute ripper.
It was ironic that Curwin Bosch should make the mistake that opened the door for that dramatic Lions match winner, because he was the biggest reason why the Sharks were in front. His kicking was first rate, of course, but equally as important he was prepared to mix it, taking the line on to good effect and making a handful of tackles without a miss.
If he gets the right support and tutelage he is going to go a long way. I like the idea of having both him and April in the lineup together because it gives them an extra play-maker. It’s a tactic New Zealand teams have played heavily on in recent years.
Sharks fans will be no doubt be blowing up deluxe over the refereeing, and as a neutral observer it’s hard not to have some sympathy. There’s been plenty of admiration expressed for the Lions in this column over the past couple of years but watching this game I just had this constant gut feeling they were, as home team, getting the rub of the green.
Ettienne Oosthuizen’s charge into a goal line ruck wasn’t the worst, but it wasn’t smart either as it put his team at risk and cost them a try. Because he’d committed that indiscretion, it meant the “high tackle” that followed earned a yellow, for something that wasn’t exactly life threatening.
Other far more serious indiscretions were missed both ways, and it seems some officials are not doing enough to police the neck roll, which is a real blight on the game.
But still the Lions had to be good enough to take that chance they got at the end, and it was somewhat appropriate that it should go to the outstanding Jaco Kriel, who emerged from a titanic loose forward battle with his reputation fully intact.
This match proved that there is still a lot of quality in South Africa, it’s just spread out a bit too far and wide due to there being at least one too many teams, and Saru's meek attitude to overseas-based players.
Two things before moving on from the Lions.
Best possible scenario is that Johan Ackerman will go to Gloucester for a couple of years and return with a broadened experience and knowledge to take over the Springboks after the next World Cup. It could be the making of him.
In his absence there’s no reason, with his deputy stepping up, why the Lions shouldn’t continue to flourish. They have raised the bar in South Africa over the last year or two. They have scored more tries direct from set piece than any other team this year, which surely reflects good coaching and the ability of players to implement strategy.
The other match that caused a few howls of outrage was in Brisbane, where the Hurricanes had to overcome an almost forensic examination of their performance to beat the Reds.
Four tries were disallowed, all of them ultimately correct calls, but two at least resulted from officials changing their mind after multiple screenings of replays that had not been called for.
We’ve been down this road before. If the right call is made in the end, well and good, but if officiating of rugby matches is to become a joint venture between the referees, the TV van and the big screen, then it needs to be applied without favour, and it would be difficult to argue that was the case in Brisbane.
The better team won, but a world-class referee didn’t have one of his better games, and was embarrassed when TJ Perenara had to correct him on a point of law.
The weekend ended on a cracking note with the Waratahs and Crusaders both producing their best performances of the season.
In a city where New Zealand teams have had a few issues in recent years, The Crusaders looked to be well in control, having found their way a bit too easily through an inefficient Waratahs defence, but a double blast had the Tahs back in the game, with the massive Taqele Naiyaravoro scoring a truly spectacular try that close the gap right up midway through the second half.
But the Crusaders are not leading this thing without good reason. They are the best final quarter team in the competition, and were quite ruthless in the last ten minutes.
There’s no question the New Zealand teams are superbly fit, but that’s not the only reason they win so many games late in the piece. Squad depth is a massive factor, with players either able to come off the bench and slot in seamlessly, or change the way the game is being played, while the group leadership model ensures there are strong leaders on the field no matter who comes and goes, and this helps to keep the effort at maximum for the full 80.
Likewise the Bulls ended up empty handed in Hamilton from a game in which they were at times quite dominant, always competitive and physically relentless. They were in it for a very long time, but their inability to score a try meant they were never able to turn their effort into anything other than multiples of three.
To be fair it could have been different had the referees noticed an off-the-ball shot by inside centre Jonny Fa’auili. It was spotted by an eagle eyed citing commissioner, and he has been given four weeks. Had the referee seen it, it would have been a yellow card at least, and could have been a game changer. We’ll never know, and it’s not a given that Bulls would have been able to capitalise with their forceful, but narrow attack.
They certainly looked better with Rudy Paige and Handre Pollard operating together. I read some of the things said about Pollard and sometimes wonder if he is more highly regarded in New Zealand than he is in parts of South Africa.
We see a player who is coming back from a serious injury, and it’s taking time for him to get back to his best. Israel Dagg had the same issues and was even left out of the World Cup team, but look where he ended up last year, right back at the top of the game. Pollard can do the same, and I think some of the criticism of his play is quite OTT.
But in the end the Chiefs were able to produce a couple of magical moments, Sean Stevenson pulling of a quite brilliant sidestep, chip and regather, and Damien McKenzie pouncing on an exquisite kick through.
The Bulls should be able to pick up the points in Singapore this weekend, and that will be their travelling done, but they have a lot of catching up to do, and face a run of games against New Zealand teams, who at this point are yet to drop a game against overseas opposition.
That record will be fully put to the test this weekend in Cape Town, where we get our best indicator yet as to the respective strengths of the New Zealand and South African conferences.
The Chiefs missed a lot of tackles against the Bulls, but still have an amazing scramble defence, having conceded just six tries against, with all respect to the Stormers, a higher level of opposition.
It’s great to see the Stormers playing with a greater freedom of expression this year, but uncharacteristically they have leaked a few tries, and that will need to be remedied against a very sharp Chiefs attack.
Sam Cane is out for the Chiefs and we know about the midfield injury woes for the Stormers.
And how about the clash at lock, with the battle of the giants Retallick and Bird against Etzebeth and du Toit? That’ll be worth watching on its own.
The Stormers will be hard to beat at home in front of what’s bound to be a big crowd, and right now it looks too close to call.
Exactly the way Super Rugby should be.