Super Rugby's unpredictable opening rounds
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — After two rounds the only predictable thing about Super Rugby has been its unpredictability.
The defending champion Crusaders along with the Dunedin-based Highlanders and Durban-based Sharks are the only teams to have won both of their first two games.
Teams that won handsomely in the first round often lost almost as attractively in the second; teams that were edged in the first round edged others to balance their records.
No team experienced more precipitous highs and lows than the Pretoria-based Bulls, who trounced the Stormers 40-3 in a South African derby in round one and lost 27-12 to Argentina's Jaguares in round two, firming the impression they are a home ground team.
The Jaguares were rebounding from a 25-16 loss to the Johannesburg-based Lions in Buenos Aires in round one and, as if to affirm the jumbled nature of this season's competition so far, the Lions — reliably the best South African franchise in recent years — lost 19-17 to the Stormers in round two.
The Brumbies were beaten 34-27 by the Melbourne Rebels in the first round but appeared to be a different team when they beat the Hamilton-based Chiefs 54-17, scoring eight tries.
Nobody was more surprised than Chiefs' coach Colin Cooper, who spoke for many Super Rugby followers when he said the scoreline was unpredictable.
"We're all in shock, really, and surprised with that result," he said. "They just played better than us everywhere, and I guess it's one of those games you just want to forget. I'm a bit speechless."
The Wellington-based Hurricanes edged the New South Wales Waratahs 20-19 in their opening match but were pounded 38-22 by the Christchurch-based Crusaders, who improved immeasurably on their lackluster 24-22 win over the Auckland-based Blues in the first round.
The Waratahs, in turn, went on to beat the much improved Sunwolves 31-30 in round two and counted themselves lucky in a come-from-behind win.
The islands of consistency in a sea of uncertainty were the Crusaders, who inevitably improved on their performance against the Blues to blow away the Hurricanes with a four-try first half.
The Highlanders again showed they are the best scramblers in the tournament, coming from 14 points down to beat the Queensland Reds 36-31 on Friday after also rallying, with 14 men, to beat the Chiefs 30-27 a week earlier. No team in the competition has been better able than the Highlanders to play with concerted purpose when behind.
The other certainty, obvious after losses in the first two rounds, is that the star-studded Blues remain the problem child of New Zealand rugby. After years of under-achievement each new season brings the hope of a Blues renaissance and new disappointment.
New coaches effect no change in the underlying culture of the Blues, which appears to be a group of talented individuals but not a team.
The reason for the variability in results appears to be that most teams are mediocre — capable of winning at full strength in some weeks, not the next if they are without leading players and not consistently. That leaves the title seemingly open again for the Crusaders who are nothing if not consistent.
With as many as 19 All Blacks on their roster, they are unaffected by the lineup changes that unsettle other teams and they should become better as resting All Blacks return.