Quade Cooper has flat Rebels firing; Ardie Savea peerless at No. 7

Super Rugby Round 1 proved a nightmare of tipsters as six of the opening seven fixtures were won by the away team.

The rugby itself varied in quality, the Bulls' crushing 40-3 victory over the Stormers being the standout performance of the weekend.

Read on as we discuss some of the big talking points from Round 1.


In what was refreshing change from the usual standard of Australian derbies, particularly early in the season, the Brumbies and Rebels turned on a nine-try thriller to set the conference off to an entertaining start.

While all four of the Brumbies' tries came from either rolling mauls or from a pick-and-drive close to the line, they did show glimpses of the kind of attack that began to flow towards the end of last season.

But it was the Rebels who really looked sharp - their backline clearly relishing a flat style of attack; so much so that two tries were called back after forward passes from Will Genia. The Rebels were keen to execute as close to the gainline as possible, in a promising sign for Australian rugby on the whole.

All the talk in the build-up had been about Quade Cooper's return to Super Rugby and while he didn't deliver the "most commanding performance from a Australian No. 10 in years" as one commentator put it, he certainly did make a solid return to the tournament after a year on the sidelines.

There was the usual Cooper tricks; a jinking run down the sideline, a no-look pass that found Brumbies halfback Joe Powell and both good- and bad moments in defence. But running onto the flat, hard passes of Genia once again, Cooper was able to provide for Tom English, Billy Meakes, Marika Koreibete and two-try star Jack Maddocks outside.

It was Meakes whose performance really caught the eye however, the Rebels inside centre enjoying his best outing in the navy blue jumper to date. Meakes looks to have already built a combination with Cooper, an achievement not to be overlooked given the veteran playmaker can be wildly unpredictable.

But more importantly Meakes now appears to possess a more rounded game, evidenced by the delightful cross-kick that found Maddocks for his second try of the night. A fringe Wallabies squad member over the past few years, Meakes should not be discounted from World Cup contention if he continues to play as he did in Canberra on Friday.

The Brumbies, meanwhile, will be cursing their luck after David Pocock was forced off after just five minutes following a head knock. Whether the Rebels would have enjoyed the same fluency on attack had Pocock been on the field is debatable, though visiting skipper Dane Haylett-Petty summed up the situation pretty well.

"It was probably the highlight of my night taking 'Poey' out," Haylett-Petty said. "I'm glad he's all right, but it's nice not having to play against him. Obviously he's so big for them, he leads them around."

It's uncertain whether Pocock will return for the Brumbies' next match, at home to the Chiefs on Saturday, given he also suffered a concussion on last year's spring tour. But it's nothing but good news for the Rebels, who have the Round 2 bye before they welcome the Highlanders to AAMI Park a week later.

From an Australian perspective, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika must have been impressed by what both sides offered in a first-up outing. But the Rebels' flatness in attack, and Cooper's role in running that, will certainly provide fuel for thought moving forward.

The Wallabies looked completely lost on attack throughout much of 2018, largely because they were often trying to execute so far behind the advantage line.


Two minutes and 15 seconds.

That's all it took for the first dose of Television Match Official ambiguity in this year's Super Rugby season as Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman saw his try overturned in Hamilton.

Having been sent up to the TMO with an on-field ruling of "try" by referee Glen Jackson, there appeared to be enough video evidence for that decision to be upheld. On one angle, it looked as though Coltman had clearly grounded the ball but another gave the impression that Brad Weber may have squeezed his leg under it, thus preventing a grounding.

The Television Match Official deemed the second angle to be conclusive evidence a try had not been scored and thus instructed Jackson to overturn his original decision.

But given Jackson's original decision had been to award a try, should the first angle not have been enough to confirm the five-pointer?

What the advice of the TMO has instead achieved is confusion and whether the referee's on-field decision actually carries any weight at all.

Later in the match, Jackson and TMO both agreed a shoulder charge from Sio Tomkinson was worthy of a red card. Tomkinson appeared to have attempted to wrap his left arm, but there was little doubt the contact was shoulder on head and left Chiefs skipper Brodie Retallick requiring a head injury assessment.

Now if that is the standard for red-card dangerous tackles, then the rest of the season should be refereed accordingly. But what players, coaches and most importantly, the fans, won't cop is the kind of inconsistency that saw Owen Farrell twice escape sanction for shoulder charges during last year's November series. Farrell's tackles may not have made contact with the head, but such was the force of the contact and lack of use of an arm, that they demanded action.

Back in Hamilton, though, the Highlanders were able to overcome both Coltman's overturned try and the red card to record a 30-27 victory with the help of a 76th-minute try.

The Hurricanes pulled off a similarly dogged victory 24 hours later when a late try from DuPlessis Kirifi, and a missed penalty from Bernard Foley, saw them edge the Waratahs 20-19 at Brookvale Oval in Sydney.

It was by no means a pretty encounter, one instead dominated by handling errors and the whistle of referee Angus Gardner. But there was one standout performer in Hurricanes' Ardie Savea.

Having finished 2018 as New Zealand's first-choice openside, Savea was at his bullocking best in Sydney as he scored one try, had another overturned for foul play from Kirifi and generally threw himself into the Waratahs in both attack and defence all night long.

But it was Savea's effort in chasing Waratahs winger Curtis Rona to the corner that really exemplifies the type of player that he has become. Rona may have scored the try, but Savea's determination in chasing him right to the line, having burned past two teammates in the process, reflects the never-say-die attitude he plays with each week.

Sam Cane faces a huge challenge if he's to regains the All Blacks No. 7 jersey once he returns from a neck injury as Savea is arguably the most complete, dynamic, loose-forward playing the game at the moment.


How good were the Bulls in dismissing the Stormers at Loftus Versfeld? The Stormers were appalling, of course, and that should be factored into our consideration of the hosts' performance in recording the only home win of the opening weekend, but still the answer to the question is "very good". And not just in producing a mix of set plays and free-flowing attacking brilliance that shredded the Stormers. They were also solid with heavy defence that stopped the visitors mostly on or behind the gainline, and it was notable the determination with which they set and reset in the closing stages to preserve their shutout. Most impressively, the Bulls displayed tremendous leadership and decision-making. Both defence and strong on-field leadership was absent last season as they finished last in the conference, so this performance was a marked all-round effort.

For all that improvement on last season's numbers, they Bulls got on the front foot from the opening whistle with their strongest asset from 2018: The lineout; they boasted the second-best set-piece in the competition last season, and they monstered the Stormers in stealing five of the visitors' throws. That gave them cheap possession, and they used it well. Factor in that they were better also at scrum time and at the breakdown, and effected 16 turnovers, and it's no surprise they won so easily despite the visitors dominating territory and possession. They showed also they have maintained the strike power that was the best thing about their game last season, while Rosko Specman, with his Sevens pace and footwork, seems to have added a different string to their bow on the left wing and wherever he pops up.

Most impressive about the Bulls, and among the most impressive aspects of play by any team in Super Rugby round one, was their game management. Skipper Lood de Jager and vice-captain Handre Pollard, with Springboks back-rower Duane Vermeulen, and veteran hooker Schalk Brits while he was on the pitch, were unfazed and unhurried in their decision-making. Hence the Bulls had complete and calm control of the game even while under pressure. Perhaps it seemed strange when de Jager pointed at the posts in the second half, with the Bulls leading 31-3; perhaps it seemed as if he did not want to run up the score against overmatched and well-beaten rivals, as if in a one-sided NFL fixture, but the skipper explained the clarity of his thinking when he said post match that "we already had the bonus point, we didn't have to change anything". Simple, really.

It will be unwise to get carried away with the Bulls' performance, for the players and fans to get ahead of themselves, as the Stormers could not have been worse had they tried. But Bulls coach Pote Human is on top of that, saying after the match that his team's performance was "near-perfect... but I agree that we gave away soft penalties and sometimes in defence we were too narrow".

Human said also that the Bulls "have the squad to do well this year but we must just stay on the ground and be humble", and he might just be right in suggesting "there is no doubt that we will surprise a lot of teams this season".

The Bulls now they get an immediate opportunity to test that assertion, to gauge their hopes in the open South African conference. The Stormers at home are one thing, but now the Bulls travel to play the Jaguares in Buenos Aires having failed to win away from Pretoria last season. The Jaguares are coming off a home loss to the Lions, but still they'll provide a stern test of the Bulls credentials; it will be interesting to see how the Bulls go next week, especially given the Jaguares showed signs in losing to the Lions this week that they're vulnerable to disciplined rivals who exert scoreboard pressure.