For those who are unfamiliar with Super Rugby, there are 15 teams, divided into three Conferences: 5 from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa respectively. Each team plays other teams from the same Conference twice, and four of the five teams from each of the other conferences once. 6 teams make it through to the finals: the best teams from each Conference, and the next three best teams overall. If you’re confused about the difference between Rugby Union and Rugby League, it’s pretty simple: in Union, there’s a constant battle for possession. This means when someone gets tackled, their teammates have to protect the ball, scrums actually matter, and teams keep possession until they score points, or lose the ball.
In the opening game of 2013 the beleaguered Melbourne Rebels made it clear that they won’t be a walkover this season, defeating WA’s Western Force. The Force opened the scoreboard after Rebels flanker Scott Higginbotham was sent to the sin bin. With the defence one man down, Western Force winger Alfi Mafi easily exploited an overlap in the 27th minute. On Higginbotham’s return the Rebels replied with a determined rolling maul off the back of a lineout, sending newcomer Ged Robinson across the white line. The Rebels hit back again when Richard Kingi got a fantastic offload away as two Force defenders blasted him over the sideline, putting gargantuan second rower Hugh Pyle into space. By full time, both sides had scored three tries apiece. However, James O’Connor’s boot, and his new haircut, proved the difference, taking 6 from 6 place kicks. Final score, 30-23 to the Rebels.
Round 1 also saw the ACT Brumbies demolish former premiers the Queensland Reds, 24-6 here in Canberra. The game was headlined by two eminent Wallabies: man mountain David Pocock debuting for Canberra, and back-row peacock Quade Cooper, returning from injury for the Reds. Things fired up in the ninth minute when Brumbies flyhalf Ian Prior got a grubber kick away, chased down by fullback Jessie Mogg, who skidded across the try-line into the corner, putting the Brumbies in front. The next 70 minutes saw an exchange of penalties, but Mike Harris was struggling to put many points on the board for the Reds. The score was 17-6 in the 79th minute when Mogg landed a lazy intercept and took off for a second try, sealing the win for the Brumbies.
In Round two the NSW Waratahs opened their season with a trip to Fortress Queensland, Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. The Red’s defeat in Round 1 was little consolation for the Waratahs, who can never seem to beat the Reds at home. Fifteen mins in, they didn’t look like breaking with tradition. Dom Shipperly and Ben Tapui both crossed the line for QLD, putting the score at 17-3. The heroic New South Welshman clawed their way back to 17-all by the 60 minute mark, with tries to Israel Folau (who moved on from AFL to bigger and better things) and 22 year old debutant Ben Volavola. At the 60 minutes mark it still looked like history could be made, but the Waratah’s just weren’t blooming. With six minutes left, to the immense chagrin of this commentator, Reds flanker Eddie Quirk broke four tackles, running the ball right to the line, setting up Ben Tapui for a second try off the back of the ruck. Final score 25-17.
Finally for the Australian teams, the Western Force were humbled for a second time, this time by the Kings, 22-10. The Port Elizabeth Kings are a new team to Super Rugby, replacing the Johannesburg Lions, perennial bearers of the wooden spoon. Like the Rebels, this unestablished club has made an immediate impression on the rugby world, with prodigious winger Sergeal Peterson scoring two professional tries three months out of high school. The Kings currently sit at the top of the South African Conference. Around the world, the remainder of the round saw South African heavyweights the Pretoria Bulls and the Cape Town Stormers edge out a protracted game of place kicks, 25-17. In New Zealand, the Otago Highlanders and Hamilton Chiefs bashed out a glorious seven-try melee, 27-41, while the Auckland Blues defeated the Wellington Hurricanes 34-20. Next game to look out for: Brumbies vs. Waratahs here in Canberra on the 9th of March.