The Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers both scored their first wins of the season, but this past weekend of Super Rugby action should have confirmed the growing concern among neutrals that the story of the South African conference this year will be that there is the Sharks and then there’s rubbish.
The Sharks, who would hardly have been quaking in their boots as they watched the games featuring South African teams on television during their bye weekend, admittedly weren’t all that flush in their last performance, when they beat the Hurricanes.
But what they have dished up thus far has been infinitely superior to what has come from the other sides in the conference, and at this stage hopes of a two- or three-horse race are pure fantasy.
Until this round, Lions fans might have begged to differ, while Cheetahs supporters would have retained some confidence that their side could repeat their heroics of last year when they made the play-offs and thus confound the expectations of critics who continue to write their team off.
However, while it might be premature to suggest that the Lions’ bubble was burst on their trip up the M1 to Loftus, the way they were strangled by the Bulls in a wet-weather game would have confirmed that while they may shock a few teams this year, they are a long way from being genuine conference contenders, let alone title challengers.
Of course that shouldn’t be what they are chasing. After playing their way back into the competition through the promotion-relegation system last August, and having had their participation in Super Rugby over the next two years guaranteed by Saru decree, this should be a time for rebuilding.
And the signs are good that they will go about doing that in an intelligent way that will see them make progress.
For the Cheetahs it looks like what they should have feared at the start of the season has come to pass – they are no longer being viewed as an unknown quantity.
Making the play-offs changes the landscape for a franchise, and one of the big differences between the Cheetahs this year and the Cheetahs of last season is that now they are being respected and teams are putting in a lot of preparation when they play them.
There is also greater expectation of the Cheetahs now. For goodness sake, even this critic, who last year was derided by Cheetahs fans for predicting they would lose even when they were on their winning run, went with a Cheetahs win in their first tour match in Melbourne this past Friday.
There were good reasons for it too, for the Cheetahs had 160 minutes of intense Super Rugby behind them whereas the Rebels were playing their first game.
The Rebels do look a better side than in previous years. They have made some clever buys during the off-season (not that player recruiting between Australian franchises happens during the off-season, it appears to be happening all the time!) and have a big, threatening backline plus a strong loose-forward combination.
On the evidence of their game against the Cheetahs, they are going to be hard to beat in Melbourne this year.
But that the Cheetahs lost as comprehensively as they did should be a massive concern for them, and they were poor for most of the 80 minutes.
It looked as though they were falling back into their old way of being easy meat for opposing teams on foreign soil with the number of errors they made, and the missed kicks at goal certainly didn’t help their cause.
The Stormers won at Newlands but it wasn’t the response to the unexpected drubbing at the hands of the Lions that their fans would have hoped for.
Until they won the game with a Demetri Catrakilis conversion of a Deon Fourie try with two minutes remaining, the Stormers’ performance was characterised by a comedy of errors.
The Stormers’ leadership spoke about improvement in some areas afterwards, but it would be interesting to be a fly on the wall when they go through the video of the game, because from the vantage point of the press box, it was hard to pinpoint many improvements apart from the result.
The Hurricanes’ coach was certainly not speaking to an unsympathetic audience when he told the post-match press conference afterwards that he thought his team had been unlucky.
“It is a cruel game,” was how Hurricanes skipper Conrad Smith put it, and with some justification.
But as his opposite number and rival captain Jean de Villiers intoned, a win is a win, and the Stormers will take it in the hope that it will galvanise them ahead of a difficult away tour that starts in Christchurch this coming Friday.
A massive improvement in all areas will be necessary if they are to challenge.
The difference between the Bulls and the Stormers at the moment is an obvious one – or should be, to anyone who watches both teams play: whereas the Stormers at the moment don’t seem clear on what game they should be playing, and appear to have abandoned the structures that saw them win the South African conference twice and top the log in 2012, the Bulls retain the clarity they have always had on their style of play.
There was nothing flashy about their win over the Lions, but then it would have been idiotic of them to be flashy.
They knew against the Lions they just needed to stick to the suffocation policy that has worked for them in the past, and worked for the Stormers before they abandoned it, and they would come through with the points. Which is exactly what they did.
You wouldn’t bet your house at the moment on the Bulls threatening the Sharks, but they at least showed that they should remain a tough team to beat on their home field.
The return clash against the Sharks in three weeks from now could in fact be a pivotal one in their campaign.
For the rest, the weekend provided a further setback for the Crusaders, who blew a gasket in the 20-minute periods straddling the halftime break, and squandered a good lead against the Blues to eventually lose by 11 points.
In the process they lost Richie McCaw to a thumb injury so at least the Stormers can console themselves with the thought that their next opponents aren’t in a great space either.
The two favoured teams, the Waratahs and the Chiefs, both impressed, but for different reasons. For the Chiefs it was their ability to get home in another close game that they could easily have lost, while the Waratahs were irrepressible in laying the Reds to waste in Sydney.