Super Rugby Rebooted: Classic No.8 battle offers Cheika frustration, hope

The Jaguares, Sharks and Blues each registered their first win of Super Rugby in Round 4, leaving only Japan's Sunwolves without a victory in this year's competition.

The Argentines' 38-28 victory over a disappointing Waratahs side secured Mario Ledesma his first win as a Super Rugby coach, while the Hurricanes triumphed in their heavyweight all-Kiwi clash with the Crusaders.

Elsewhere, there were wins for the Rebels, Highlanders and Reds.

Read on as we bring you some of the major storylines from each of the three conferences.

Australian Conference

Mafi, Naisarani show what Wallabies are missing

They're two of the form players in Australian rugby in a position in which the Wallabies are in short supply; the problem is one is not eligible for Michael Cheika's squad, and the other faces a 12-month wait to become eligible.

Friday's Australian derby at AAMI Park saw Melbourne Rebels continue their unbeaten start to the season, last year's wooden-spooners downing the Brumbies to record their third bonus-point win on the bounce. It also saw Amanaki Mafi and Isi Naisarani go head-to-head at No. 8 in a battle of arguably the two best back-row ball runners from the Australian conference.

The match-up certainly didn't disappoint, either.

For the Brumbies, Naisarani was prominent from the outset and particularly dangerous from the back of the ruck -- often catching the Rebels' defence unaware with a cheeky pick-and-go through the middle. The former Force No. 8 finished the game with a team-high 17 runs for 82 metres, a gain bettered only by winger Henry Speight.

Mafi, meanwhile, was in the thick of the action throughout -- sometimes on the deck -- as he taunted the Brumbies at every possible opportunity. But he is far more than a provocateur, and the Japanese star and reigning Australian Super Rugby Player of the Year matched Naisarani's 82 metres from just 15 runs. Mafi underlined his performance with a bustling try from the base of a scrum, showing his understanding of the laws by touching the ball down at the base of the goalpost pad.

Both players were among their respective side's best in providing the forward thrust needed to provide a solid platform in Super Rugby. That is even more important at Test level, an area where the Wallabies have struggled, particularly at No. 8, for some time.

With Sean McMahon having signed to play in Japan, Cheika is without an obvious No.8 replacement for the June series against Ireland. David Pocock is aiming for a return for the Brumbies against the Waratahs at the end of the month, which could be the answer if the coach reverts to the setup that was successful through to the 2015 World Cup final. But there are questions as to whether the Pocock-Michael Hooper combination leaves the Wallabies short of an extra ball-runner in the back-row -- an area where New Zealand, England and Ireland have exposed the Wallabies. And so the conversation returns to Naisarani, who becomes eligible for the Wallabies in March next year.

Originally form Fiji, the start of Naisarani's residency period didn't officially commence until early 2016 -- meaning his three years will expire this time next autumn. That's a tantalising prospect for the Wallabies ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but it is also hard not to feel for Fiji who are building a squad capable of reaching the quarterfinals at the global showpiece.

Fiji coach John McKee may not have put himself through the punishment, but Friday's clash that featured Fiji-born players Sefanaia Naivalu, Henry Speight, Marika Koroibete and Naisarani wouldn't have been easy viewing if he did.

Cheika, meanwhile, must simply cross off days on his calendar until he receives potentially yet another talented Fijian capable of making an impact at Test level.

New Zealand Conference

Awesome Akira shows Blues the way in Joburg

Staring down the barrel of a third straight loss, and virtually the end of the season, the Blues at last showed some character to come away with a dramatic win in Johannesburg.

After suffering defeats by the Highlanders and Chiefs to start the season, Tana Umaga's side could ill-afford another loss; but that's exactly what they appeared headed for after the Lions scored three first-half tries to lead 21-3 in the shadows of the oranges.

But a key score from Akira Ioane just on the hooter helped to shift some of the momentum; not that the Blues came out in dominant fashion after the break either. In fact, they required three tries inside the final 11 minutes to run down their hosts and snatch victory.

"We've known what's been within this group and the work they've done round showing that resilience and toughness to grind out wins," Blues coach Umaga said after the game. "We've just been waiting for them to show it. They did that in leaps and bounds tonight.

"In terms of the confidence we can take out, it's great. We know what it took for us to get to this stage and now we've got to get that consistency in our preparation so we can get that in our performance."

Rieko Ioane grabbed two of the Blues' second-half tries, but older brother Akira has been doing most of the damage for the Aucklanders this season. Akira burst onto the scene a few years back, only to be superseded by his younger brother on the way to being named World Rugby's Breakthrough Player of the Year.

Akira has averaged a touch over 56 metres per game this season, and scored a try in each of the Blues' opening three games, including a double against the Highlanders in Round 2. He was man of the match in Johannesburg on Saturday, too.

In further good news for Umaga, the coach also saw fly-half Stephen Perofeta come off the bench and kick four key conversions. The Taranaki pivot also looked composed with ball in hand, giving the Blues the kind of options for which they have longed at No. 10 since Carlos Spencer's retirement.

Whether Umaga sticks with Bryn Gatland or looks to start Perofeta in the coming weeks remains to be seen, but still the Blues simply cannot afford to suffer defeat in Cape Town next week. Having shown the type or character needed to be a contender in this competition in Joburg, a loss next week against a Stormers side hurting after three weeks on tour will make Saturday's last-gasp win nothing but a flash in the pan.

South African Conference

Hope springs with talented youngsters

Despite SA Rugby's troubles and the Springboks' struggles, the past weekend's Super Rugby matches suggested there is cause for optimism.

The results were obviously not that great for the South African teams, with only the Sharks managing to beat the Sunwolves following the Stormers' defeat by the Highlanders, the Bulls going down to the Reds and the Lions squandering a decent lead against the Blues. But some of the performances of promising and talented youngsters should have warmed the hearts of rugby fans in the republic.

Young Stormers lock Salmaan Moerat, who came off the bench to make his debut in Dunedin after flying from Cape Town last Monday, showed no signs of nerves when he climbed into the Highlanders on Friday. Fly-half Damian Willemse, who was still at school in 2016, showed off his natural ability with some great touches and his all-round play. Sharks speedsters Makazole Mapimpi and Sibusiso Nkosi ran the Sunwolves ragged in Durban. And Aphiwe Dyantyi just can't stop scoring for the Lions. These and many other players have enormous potential to be greats in the green and gold, but they need guidance and proper management -- things that have been lacking in South African rugby over the past decade.

New Zealand seems to have this figured out, as their players seamlessly make the step up to from Super Rugby into the All Blacks on a regular basis. New Boks coach/director of rugby Rassie Erasmus needs to find a way to help young South African players take that next step. Serious talent needs to be looked after if the Boks are to become a force once more.