Newcomers have mixed results in Super Rugby round 1
Argentina's Jaguares made a winning debut in Super Rugby but the other newcomers, Japan's Sunwolves and South Africa's Kings, lost in the weekend's opening round as did both of last year's finalists.
The Jaguares, featuring a strong core of players from the Argentina Rugby World Cup squad, showed character when they rallied from 24-3 down to beat South Africa's Cheetahs 34-33 in Bloemfontein.
The Sunwolves put up a better performance than expected after a limited preparation, going down 26-13 to South Africa's Lions in the first Super Rugby match in Tokyo, but the Kings were outclassed by compatriots the Sharks 43-8.
Defending champions the Highlanders were beaten by the Blues 33-31, and last year's runners-up the Hurricanes crashed to the ACT Brumbies 52-10.
The Jaguares were expected to be the most competitive of the new teams which have expanded Super Rugby from 15 to 18 teams this season. But to win on debut they had to overcome a messy and ill-disciplined start, losing two players to the sin-bin and conceding four tries, including a penalty try, inside the first 25 minutes.
The Jaguares lost Argentina flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez and international teammate and scrumhalf Martin Landajo to yellow cards, but responded with four tries of their own, with two by Landajo after he returned from the bin.
Landajo's second, rounding off an 80-meter counterattack, was the crucial go-ahead score for the newcomers at 31-30. Sanchez showed his worth with a dropped goal, and the Jaguares held firm despite a late penalty from the Cheetahs to close the gap to a point.
Their ability to compose themselves and rally after a poor start, especially on the road, bodes well for the rest of the season.
''We played with heart,'' captain Agustin Creevy said. ''It was something incredible to play here and be in Super Rugby.''
After a troubled gestation, the Sunwolves had little more than two weeks to prepare for their opening match against last year's eighth-place team.
The Saturday afternoon match at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground helped ease some concerns about the viability of the tournament's first Japanese team. The Sunwolves drew an enthusiastic crowd of almost 20,000 which reacted with delight when hooker Shota Horie scored the team's first Super Rugby try.
The Kings found it more difficult to overcome a troubled introduction to the competition. Financial and administrative problems affected the team's ability to recruit and retain players and though they scored first they eventually were beaten by six tries to one.
The Auckland-based Blues also embarked on a new era under head coach Tana Umaga, the former All Blacks captain who has been charged with ending years of under-achievement by New Zealand's largest franchise.
After a loose first half in which 44 points were scored – the Highlanders led 24-20 at halftime – the Blues rallied to seal a first-up win with a late try to lock Patrick Tuipulotu.
''It's only a start and we've got a long way to go,'' Tuipulotu said. ''Our mantra for this one was just make a statement. We needed to let everyone know the Blues are coming. In saying that, it's been a long time coming, and just a start.''
The Chiefs also needed a late try, from captain Sam Cane, to beat the Crusaders 27-21 in Christchurch. Most New Zealand teams have had their ranks thinned by the retirements of leading players after last year's World Cup, and the Crusaders have suffered more than most, losing captain Richie McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter.
The Hurricanes have also been substantially weakened by the departure of midfielders Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith which showed in their heavy loss at the ACT Brumbies. They have to regroup ahead of next weekend's clash with the Highlanders, a repeat of last year's final.
The New South Wales Waratahs were also impressive winners in Australia, beating the Queensland Reds 30-10, taking an elusive bonus point by scoring three tries more than their opponents.
The Stormers also captured a bonus point in South Africa by defeating the Bulls 33-9.