Eight weeks into the 2012 Super Rugby season and it still does not feel as if the competition has really kicked into gear. Granted, there are still ten rounds left to be played, followed by the play-offs, but so far most teams still appear to be finding their feet, as if Southern Hemisphere rugby is still nursing a World Cup hangover. Some of the game’s biggest names, Richie McCaw and Quade Cooper, have yet to enter the fray, while other stars such as Schalk Burger, Drew Mitchell or even Jerome Kaino have been out injured since the second week of the season and Dan Carter is still being gently eased back into the Crusaders squad, still recovering from the groin injury he picked up during the World Cup.
Most teams have also lost a wealth of experienced players to the Northern Hemisphere or retirement. A number of young and exciting players have stepped up to fill the void, but teams are still adjusting to the new status quo. Some established players, only a few years older than the young guns coming through, are feeling the pressure, scrambling to secure overseas contracts. Piri Weepu and Jimmy Cowan, two halfbacks who were part of the All Blacks’ World Cup squad, have surprisingly been mostly relegated to the bench this season in their respective franchises. Cowan, who up until now has been a marquee player for the Highlanders as the only regular All Black in the team, has only started once this season and recently announced that he would be leaving for Gloucester next year. Similarly, Weepu, along with other Blues players Kaino and Ali Williams, are thought to be negotiating moves overseas.
The Blues’ abject performance this season has perhaps provided an added impetus for these players to move abroad. Despite a squad littered with All Blacks, the Aucklanders have looked pedestrian at best, especially their forwards; their performances marred by sloppiness and ill-discipline. Having lost seven out of eight games, their failures have caused a minor controversy in New Zealand, with coach Pat Lam reduced to tears when trying to defend his players from racially-charged criticism.
For now the Chiefs lead the competition, closely followed by the Stormers and the Brumbies. All three teams have unearthed a number of young and hard-working forwards, with the Stormers trio of Steven Kitshoff, Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi all looking very much like future Springboks, despite all being only twenty years of age. However, the season is far from over and with the top ten teams all being within ten points (i.e. only two bonus-point victories) of each other on the overall table, the situation at the top could change rapidly. Expect the Reds and the Crusaders, who are still lingering in mid-table, to be back in contention at the top once their playmakers return.
Inconsistent refereeing has also contributed to the sense that the competition is not yet in full swing. Instructed to crack down on dangerous play this year, it seems that not all referees are on the same page with regards to rule interpretations; two yellow cards for marginally high tackles, which ordinarily would not have even been penalized, were issued by Chris Pollock in the Crusader-Stormers clash last week. The policy on spear tackles and other dangerous play remains vague and controversial, some referees all too happy to brandish a card for simply lifting an opposing player, only to wave play on when a jumper is taken out in the air.
The new white card, although it has been used sparingly so far, has merely added to this confusion. A white card was issued by the referee last week following a massive brawl between the Hurricanes and the Sharks. Several punches were thrown in the fracas, with the Sharks’ JP Pietersen, emerging with a bloody face after having been punched multiple times by an unidentified Hurricane’s player. Yet the citing commissioner was content to issue a retrospective yellow card to Jannie Du Plessis for a rather tame slap on Karl Lowe. The other players got off without so much as a slap on the wrist.
However, the most controversial use of the white card was made during another match that same week, when two Bulls players alleged that they had been eye-gouged by an unidentifiable Crusaders player at the bottom of a ruck. The referee issued a white card, but the citing commissioner failed to find any evidence of foul play after viewing the television replay. Suspiciously, the Bulls management chose not to give any evidence to support their players’ claims (normally eye gouging results in visible injury to or around the eye). An irate Todd Blackadder, the Crusaders’ coach, criticized the claims as a ploy to unsettle his players during the game, and also described the system as having the potential of being exploited by players throwing around unfounded accusations. Whatever problem the white card system was supposed to resolve, it is clear that rather than offer a solution, it has merely created an additional headache for referees.