WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) The first full round of Super Rugby has revealed at least one team transformed by off-season transactions but others, notably the Auckland-based Blues, trapped in a familiar rut.
The Melbourne Rebels, who won only one match in 2017, have already matched that performance in 2018 after a record-breaking 45-19 win over the Queensland Reds.
The Rebels have a new head coach and significantly strengthened roster after profiting from the closure of the Perth-based Western Force and the transformation led to them posting their highest score in a Super Rugby match.
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But there was more to the Rebels on Friday than just the addition of new players: almost a dozen from the Force including new captain Adam Coleman and, from the Reds, the veteran Wallabies scrumhalf Will Genia. There seemed to be a more clear and unified purpose among the Rebels players, who seemed able to put aside previous allegiances to form a coherent unit.
”That’s the most points the Rebels have ever scored so for us to be able to do that with a group whose only come together in a very short space of time is pretty special,” said head coach Dave Wessels, who has also joined the Rebels from the Force. ”They looked like a team and that more than the score, more than anything else is the thing that stands out for me and I think it’s a fantastic achievement for everyone involved.”
Melbourne made a scratchy start, struggling early on for combinations and making a number of handling errors. But it was the way it worked through that, knuckling down and steadily building control that most pleased Wessels and pointed to the extent of the team’s improvement.
”The really pleasing thing is that we didn’t let things like that rattle us and we composed ourselves and those are the marks of a championship team,” he said. ”But we’re under no illusions, we need to get better from here.”
The Rebels’ new depth will still be tested this season by injuries. They lost winger Sefa Naivalu to a head injury and Marika Koribete to a knee injury ahead of next week’s clash with the Sunwolves.
The Reds, who made a losing start under new head coach Brad Thorn, have more problems to contend with. Their captain, Scott Higginbotham, was sent off after only 10 minutes for a shoulder charge on Rebles lock Matt Philip and will face a SANZAAR judicial committee, as will lock Lukhan Tui who was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle on Genia.
In a stark contrast to last season, it was a successful start for Australian teams with the ACT Brumbies beating the Sunwolves 32-25 and the New South Wales Waratahs defeating the Cape Town-based Stormers 34-27.
The Waratahs used accurate kicking as an effective attacking weapon against the Stormers, scoring two of their four tries from that tactic which takes advantage of the aerial skills of Wallabies fullback Israel Folau.
”You are going to see more kicking in terms of kicking for attacking purposes and we happen to have one of the best in the world at catching those forward,” Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said. ”We’re going to continue to use that tactic, we’re going to be very open with that, but you are going to have to defend it.”
Among South African teams, the Johannesburg-based Lions beat Argentina’s Jaguares 47-27 and the Pretoria-based Bulls shocked 2016 champions the Wellington-based Hurricanes.
The star-studded Hurricanes looked lethargic and disorganized against the well-drilled Bulls team who led throughout, sealing their win with a late try to prop Pierre Schoeman.
”That’s probably the worst performance we’ve had in the three and a bit years that I’ve been involved with the Hurricanes,” head coach Chris Boyd said. ”In the period of time I’ve been coaching, I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a game where we’ve prepared so well and delivered so little.”
The weekend round showed that the Blues remain the problem child of New Zealand Super Rugby, losing 41-34 to the Dunedin-based Highlanders. The high-tempo match produced nine tries and six lead changes but the Blues started the season in familiar fashion, with a loss to a New Zealand team.
The Blues haven’t won a match against a New Zealand team since beating the Highlanders in the first round in 2016. Head coach Tana Umaga had promised a change in that record from a Blues lineup reshaped by off-season recruitment but the Blues looked much the same team, unable to win clutch games.
The Highlanders scored twice through center Teihorangi Walden while the Blues were down to 14-men after the sin-binning of Antonio Kiri Kiri and that decided the match.
”It’s obviously disappointing,” Umaga said. ”But we didn’t come away empty-handed so we are keeping pretty positive on what we can control. We know we need to be better and keep improving.”
The high-scoring nature of matches, especially in New Zealand, resulted from rule changes which effectively outlaw competition for possession after the tackle, handing a huge advantage to teams in possession. A profusion of yellow cards also indicated a harder line from referees on high tackles.