Key storylines ahead of Super Rugby

Date published: March 2 2017

Excuses for early season rust won’t go down well after Round 2 of Super Rugby this weekend, as the tournament continues at a brisk pace.

Leaving Thursday’s contest between the Force and Reds to one side, here are some takeaways from the remaining matches taking place across the Southern Hemisphere this weekend.

1) Highlanders sloppy start

The wastefulness displayed by the Highlanders in last weekend’s loss to the Chiefs was enormously out of character.

The 2015 champions have built a reputation for clinical finishing as much as for their ability to create chances, but that rhythm was never there against the Chiefs.

To have 58 percent possession and 68 percent territory – 68 and 76 in the first half – and to fail to score a single try when you have Waisake Naholo cruising past defenders and Rob Thompson turning in arguably his best performance is simply bizarre.

So, time to step it up, particularly as the Crusaders look a real threat this season.

2) Big chance for Kings?

Two home defeats to the Hurricanes and Jaguares in Round 1 won’t come as a shock, but, out of the Sunwolves and the Kings the South African franchise looked the far better outfit.

That will happen when you don’t shift over 80 points on your own turf, even if it is to the Highlanders.

One week on and not totally ignoring the impact of a trip to Singapore, this feels like the Kings’ best chance for a first away win in Super Rugby since they defeated the Rebels back in April 2013.

The Kings won the meeting between these two last season and Lionel Cronje looked in fine form off the kicking tee last week with six out of six. This game could provide a welcome early season boost.

3) New-look Brumbies conviction test

One of the surprise performances coming out of Round 1 was how hard the Brumbies pushed the Crusaders in Christchurch, coming away with a valuable losing bonus point having put themselves in a position for more.

Remember, there is no Tomás Cubelli and Christian Lealiifano controlling things at half-back, and young scrum-half Joe Powell particularly stood out last week, as did Tevita Kuridrani.

Wharenui Hawera, Kyle Godwin and Chris Alcock are all new faces that need to settle in quickly, particularly Hawera, the 23-year-old signed on a one-year contract.

Convert that promise from last weekend into a win over the Sharks, following on from the Reds’ lead, and pre-season expectations will start to be tweaked.

4) Chance for Blues to make a statement

Outstanding in Melbourne as the tore the Rebels to shreds and now Tana Umaga’s Blues get the chance to make a huge statement, travelling to Hamilton to take on the Chiefs.

Naturally Dave Rennie’s defence is unlikely to be as much of a turnstile as the effort presented by the Rebels but the signs shown by the Blues were that after a couple of years bonding together this is a plucky group with more depth than many may realise.Charlie Faumuina and Jerome Kaino once again start on the bench this week.

Ihaia West’s maturation, a return to form for Akira Ioane and Steven Luatua and of course the devastating impact of Rieko Ioane are all making the Blues exciting again, but it starts upfront in the tight five around new captain Jimmy Tupou.

Frankly, interest in the Blues hasn’t peaked this high for some time.

5) Stormers need for ruthless streak

The Stormers were outstanding in the first half last weekend against the Bulls, entertaining the 35,000 crowd at Newlands by building up a 24-0 half-time lead.

So when considering the fact that the Stormers failed to win with a try bonus point, do we credit the Bulls for finding their feet, or blame the Western Cape franchise for missing an opportunity?

The gut instinct is to role with the latter, for as impressive as the Stormers’ performance was last Saturday, this feels like a chance gone begging. Although considering that the nine-try contest is being hailed as the game that has lifted South African rugby off the floor after a rough 2016, perhaps this is not the time for criticism.

Come the end of the season, that extra point may prove to be pivotal in the outcome of both Africa 1 Conference and the South African Group overall.