Time to fear those other cats
A glance at the latest African Conference log in Vodacom Super Rugby should confirm the growing impression that it is now high time for the other teams to start fearing the potential impact on the competition of those other big cats, the ones from Argentina.
The Emirates Lions and the Toyota Cheetahs have both sent under-strength teams to Buenos Aires in the past two weekends. Supersport studio expert Nick Mallett is right when he says the Jaguares might have beaten the Lions and Cheetahs anyway had they gone there full strength, as they are certainly good enough to have done so.
However, if a new batsman comes to the crease in a cricket match and you put on a bowler who feeds him an assortment of early long hops that he can feast on, thus making it easier for him to get set, then you are complicit in helping him lay a platform and build confidence.
And that is what the two teams represented by African big cats, the Lions and Cheetahs, have done over the last two Saturdays. The Cheetahs played far better against the Jaguares than the eventual scoreline would suggest.
For coach Franco Smith, the exercise of testing his depth in the Buenos Aires game might have proved a positive. Even though they lost, playing in a hostile away environment against a good team, will have been a good thing for those individual Cheetahs players who did well.
That his team lost so comprehensively though should be a concern to the Lions and Sharks, who are in the same conference group as the Jaguares and who could conceivably find themselves in a dog-fight with the Jaguares for supremacy in Africa Conference 2 later in the year.
The thing about the Jaguares is that they have never lacked ability. They are effectively a shadow Pumas squad. They just needed to get used to the demands and the challenges posed by Super Rugby. And they needed to gain confidence.
They are currently doing both. Their confidence will certainly have been boosted sky high by the two successive wins over South African teams. They won’t care those teams came to them under-strength. They will just know they beat the South African domestic champions and also the South African team that was last year the best in Super Rugby. And on both occasions they did it in fine style.
The quality of the South American team’s off-load game and interplay between backs and forwards against the Cheetahs frequently bordered on the sublime. Like the Stormers, the Jaguares appear to have been upskilled since last year, and their forwards in particular are now handling the ball with great assurance and skill and that is contributing to their ability to score long range tries.
Remember that the Jaguares, like the Lions and the Sharks, don’t have to play New Zealand teams this year. The Australian challenge in this year’s competition looks so weak that Augustin Creevy’s men should expect to win most of their games against teams from Down Under. So that leaves the Lions and Sharks having to hope that they win their home games against the Jaguares and get helped out by the other South African sides.
They were helped by the Stormers a few weeks back, only just, but not by the Cheetahs, and the momentum the Jaguares are picking up spells danger.
Of course, the Lions should be less concerned than the Sharks. The Johannesburg team did what they were expected to do against the Reds by burying them in the Emirates Airlines Park turf, with Courtnal Skosan enjoying a field day by scoring four tries on his own. The Lions should be too good for all comers in Johannesburg this year, and that should include the Jaguares.
The Sharks though are in a completely different space. Their win over the Waratahs the previous week was outstanding, but coach Robert du Preez’s decision to test his depth against the Southern Kings nearly backfired on him. The Sharks were fortunate to escape with the points for the win against the Kings, who were set back by the yellow carding of ace ball scavenger Chris Cloete in the last quarter.
The Sharks’ biggest problem should have been clear for all to see at Kings Park – they are going to struggle to find a suitable replacement for Patrick Lambie in the weeks that the Springbok will be away nursing his latest injury. They certainly won enough ball against the Kings, and big inside centre Andre Esterhuizen was outstanding, but the backs as a whole were unable to make an impression with the possession that came their way and much of that was down to the anonymous showing of the halfbacks.
It got better for them when Michael Claassens and Garth April were on after halftime, but clearly the Sharks coach has a lot to think about as he prepares his team and considers his selection for this week’s visit to Bloemfontein to play a Cheetahs team that sent out a clear indication that this is a game they are targeting when they opted to go under-strength to Buenos Aires.
For the Sharks, who qualified for the play-offs last year on the basis of being the next best team in the African conference behind the group winners, the head of steam being picked up by the Argentinian team makes it even more imperative that they win.
The most remarkable game of the past weekend was undeniably the one in Christchurch, where the hosts staged yet another freaky comeback from what seemed an impossible position. This time they were trailing by 19 points at a stage of the second half before gathering themselves and going on a point scoring spree that saw them eventually win the game by nine points.
The quality of the New Zealand games seemed to improve in round four, which should be seen as an ominous warning for a Vodacom Bulls team that has flown to New Zealand off a not so convincing win over the Sunwolves at Loftus. It certainly wasn’t a good enough showing from the Bulls to erase the memory of the defeats that preceded it and they may have a tough couple of weeks ahead of them.
Crusaders 34 Blues 23
Rebels 14 Chiefs 27
Vodacom Bulls 34 Sunwolves 21
Hurricanes 41 Highlanders 15
Waratahs 12 Brumbies 28
Emirates Lions 44 Reds 14
Cell C Sharks 19 Southern Kings 17
Jaguares 41 Toyota Cheetahs 14