Thursday, November 30, 2023

At last… Sanzaar finally sees sense

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Most New Zealand rugby fans will support Sanzaar’s decision to reduce the Super Rugby teams to three conferences and 15 teams from the current four and 18.

Sure, there will be sympathy for those who failed to cut the mustard but professionalism is about raising standards, not dragging them down.

Hence three conferences – New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, 16 games a team: one each home and away against those in their conference, and one each against four of the five teams in the other two conferences.

Certainly it won’t get any easier playing wise for the five-strong New Zealand teams who face one another twice. But it will reduce travelling time abroad and add to spectator appeal for fans who love local derbies.

Meanwhile, the Stormers 34-26 win against the Chiefs and the Sharks 18-13 triumph against the Jaguares suggest South Africa can bounce back after last year’s slump despite the dire predictions of critics.

The Stormers’ four tries to three Cape Town victory showed that last year’s finalist Lions are not the only South African team that can play expansive rugby.

It was a rude awakening for the Chiefs, who scored two magnificent tries sparked by cheeky 80kg redhead fullback Damian McKenzie.

Both went to right wing Toni Pulu, the first sweeping the length of the field through eight pairs of hands with McKenzie handling twice and left wing James Lowe thrice.

The second started 80 metres from the Stormers’ line with McKenzie making a 40 metre dash down the centre before handing on for Pulu to finish off.

It will be fascinating to see how McKenzie performs when he replaces Aaron Cruden as the Chiefs first-five next year. Blessed with startling acceleration and absolute courage, he should bring to the position much of the daring do Beauden Barrett did for the Hurricanes and All Blacks last year.

Interestingly, Barrett has shelved his brilliant running game this season, preferring to act as a link and probe the defence with a variety of kicks.

It certainly hasn’t hurt his outside backs with brother Brodie, Ngani Laumape, Matt Proctor, Vince Sio and Julian Savea all having prospered. But All Black head coach Steve Hansen will want him at his attacking best against the British and Irish Lions in June and July.
Won’t we all?
With Hansen also expecting his reserves to make a big impact when they come off the bench, he will have been delighted with that of Liam Squire for the Highlanders against the visiting Blues at Dunedin.

With the Blues leading 20-13 at half-time and former Pakuranga star Malakai Fekitoa continuing his habit of scoring a try against the franchise that didn’t want him, Squire’s bone-crunching tackles and powerful runs did much to secure victory.

In a team that has captain Luke Whitelock and Elliott Dixon as their starting No 8 and 6 respectively, it is a pity the athletic Squire doesn’t get more game time. However he certainly makes the most of what time he does get.

Whitelock is not a particularly good attacking forward, He is, however, a strong defender, solid lineout jumper and a tireless worker.

Consequently he leads by example in much the same manner of his Crusaders captain brother, Sam, a brilliant lineout exponent who also thrives on hard graft.

  • Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author

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