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OPINION: I expected surprises during this Super Rugby season. I just didn't expect we'd get them so soon.
We're a fortnight into the New Zealand conference and the Blues are 2-0, the Hurricanes are 0-2 and the Crusaders are on the backfoot after a limp opening display at a time when the franchise is under immense pressure.
Who would have picked that?
The Chiefs are the one consistent. But back to them later.
The undoubted talking points from the second round are the Blues and the Crusaders - and for wildly contrasting reasons.
Let's start with the glass half full.
The Blues were sublime at times on Friday night.
Self-belief is a big thing for a professional rugby player. It's a trait that snowballs into good results when talented individual players combine within an environment designed to foster confidence.
The Blues are playing without fear.
Maybe it's because nobody expected anything of them this year. The naysayers will tell us it's only two games into the season and we're all getting too excited.
John Kirwan is building something he wants his old province to be proud of. It's a damn good story.
There will be some pain to come and bitter experiences yet to be learned.
But if anybody tries to suggest he and this group of men he has assembled can't do it, put them in their place.
This is a team worthy of the support of the 30,000 plus who turned up at Eden Park.
For Crusaders fans steeped in a decade of provincial and Super Rugby domination over the slick-tongued Aucklanders, Friday night was painful to watch.
Expectations were high, especially after much off-season talk about a re-emphasis on attacking rugby.
The Crusaders weren't lacking in application. It was clear what they were trying to do, but the execution lacked any urgency, leaving the Blues far too much time to read what was going on and reacting accordingly.
Now Graham Henry is in charge of the Blues' defensive formations, there is more steel in the line. But the Crusaders' inability to bend or break that line will have become an increasing concern for Todd Blackadder the more the game wore on.
The Crusaders have been accused of being ring-rusty. I don't buy that. They were up for the game but at the same rate the Blues grew in confidence, it seemed like the Crusaders diminished just as quickly.
The lack of midfield impact was a glaring concern by game's end.
The Chiefs dropped their opening game last season too, so the Eden Park result is hardly a disaster.
Blackadder will be looking for marked improvement, possibly achieved by some backline selection manipulation, against the Hurricanes on Friday night.
The Canes look a bit out-of-sorts, but not so far out that they can't quickly get their win sheet score going.
They copped some tough calls against the Reds. It was a frustrating loss but it will build resilience among Mark Hammett's men.
The Chiefs might have struggled with the sprightly Cheetahs in the opening 40 minutes in Hamilton, but the second-half display emphasised their determination to live up to their billing as defending champions.
We were all waiting to see the post-Sonny Bill Williams Chiefs model and how Dave Rennie's men would handle pressure.
The answer is pretty damn well, so far.
Coming to Dunedin and trumping the Highlanders was a more than solid start. The next assignment was to reinforce that Waikato Stadium is a new Super Rugby fortress by cruelly dispatching the first visitors of the season.
They had the wobbles in the first half, but with the coaches' words burning in their ears the Chiefs eventually righted the ship in the second spell and they looked imperious in the last 15 minutes.
What I found instructive was the strong public criticism that came from the coaching staff both during and after the game.
Wayne Smith was as unhappy as I've seen him during the halftime interview. He was also very direct with his criticism and what was expected in the second half.
Even though the Chiefs ultimately delivered a bonus-point victory, Rennie did not spare his players afterwards. He lashed them for schoolboy errors and lamented the set- piece performance.
He was right. But the fact the Chiefs now have the confidence to dissect their performances so candidly and openly shows they aspire to build a dynasty.
It is a mission they are tackling with admirable commitment.
The Chiefs are off to South Africa with an away win over the Highlanders and a bonus point home victory over the Cheetahs. They look quite comfortable to me as the new benchmark franchise of New Zealand rugby.
Will Chris Noakes end up being the buy of the season? Or Gareth Anscombe? Noakes is a late bloomer who is clearly responding to Sir JK’s methods. Anscombe looks sharp and determined. It’s a deadly combination.
There was a lot to like about the way Aaron Cruden was warming to his work on Saturday night. Dan Carter’s understudy is growing quickly.
Congratulations to Piri Weepu. A Super Rugby ton is no ordinary accomplishment. But to bring it up in such a brilliant atmosphere and directing such a sublime Blues performance is a memory that will not fade fast. Well done mate.
Question: Is John Kirwan actually a Saint rather than a Sir? There’s 31,000 people who were at Eden Park who will tell you it’s the former as the Blues continue a conversion from rabble to respect.
- © Fairfax NZ News