We may only have just ticked over into February, but Super Rugby is back in full swing with 14 of the competition’s 15 sides in action over the weekend just gone by.
Some teams surprised with dominating displays and shock upsets, while others picked up right from where they left off last year, whether that was through an anticipated victory or a capitulation leading to defeat.
With that in mind, here are our picks for Super Rugby’s winners and losers in the opening round of the 2020 campaign.
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It had been three years since Aaron Cruden last donned a Chiefs jersey prior to gracing Eden Park for the 2020 season-opener against the Blues on Friday evening.
He had to wait until the second half to make his long-awaited return for the franchise of which he helped lead to back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013, but if his performance three days ago was anything to go by, then it will be no surprise to see the 31-year-old veteran starting against the Crusaders in Hamilton this week.
Cruden was instrumental in overturning a 19-5 half-time deficit into a compelling 37-29 victory where he exuded class, confidence and experience.
The influence he cast upon the Chiefs’ backline after being injected into the clash was clear for all to see, as Warren Gatland’s side ran in four second half tries to complete an impressive comeback.
Cruden showed guile in his running game to set-up Solomon Alaimalo’s 69th minute try and composure to slot a crucial drop goal six minutes later to illustrate the importance of having a world-class playmaker at the helm of any Super Rugby side.
By luring the 50-test All Black back to Waikato Stadium, the Chiefs possess exactly that.
You would be hard pressed to find any punter who saw the Sunwolves’ hugely surprising 36-27 victory over the Melbourne Rebels in round one coming.
A scheduling clash between Super Rugby and the Top League resulted in all but three players from last year’s squad defect to Japan’s premier domestic competition, leaving them bare of almost any firepower within their ranks.
Add to that the departure of revolutionary head coach Tony Brown to the Highlanders, and it was difficult to envisage the Japanese franchise winning a single match in their final season of existence.
That didn’t stop the Sunwolves from tearing apart a lacklustre Rebels outfit in Fukuoka, though, as the Japanese franchise ran in five tries to catapult themselves to the top of the Australian conference in convincing fashion.
The Cape Town-based club established themselves as early frontrunners for the South African conference title at Newlands on Saturday as they comprehensively dismantled a confused-looking Hurricanes side.
Stacked with numerous World Cup-winning Springboks, including national skipper Siya Kolisi and World Rugby player of the year Pieter-Steph du Toit, the hosts nullified their opponents to keep them scoreless and register an imposing 27-point winning margin.
The Stormers’ ability to take full advantage of many of the Hurricanes’ costly errors is what ultimately steered them to their maiden win of the year, with tries scored by halves duo Herschel Jantjies and Damian Willemse clear evidence of that.
While head coach John Dobson will be sweating over the fitness of both Kolisi and star hooker Bongi Mbonambi, his side have nevertheless made a bold statement and look a force to be reckoned with over the coming weeks.
Cruden has a rival for this week’s most emphatic super sub in the form of Jaguares first-five Dominigo Miotti.
Coming into the fray inside the first five minutes of his side’s 38-8 thumping of the Lions at Estadio Jose Amalfitani in place of the injured Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Miotti ran riot against the former South African powerhouses.
Finishing the match with a try, five conversions, a penalty and two try assists, the 23-year-old was sublime in an unexpectedly elongated showing from the bench to drive the Argentines to a first-up win.
Now sitting atop the overall table, Miotti could well be handed the playmaking duties for the foreseeable future as the Jaguares look to go one better than last year’s runners-up finish.
There was no doubt that leading into the opening weekend of Super Rugby, the team that was facing the most pressure to perform from the get-go were the Blues.
With a play-off drought lasting nine years and no championships to speak of since 2003, the Auckland club are desperate for a top eight finish, and a round one victory over the Chiefs would have done wonders to alleviate fears of yet another underwhelming campaign.
Despite only one of the four franchises being victorious, collectively the Australian performances indicate the @wallabies could field a strong side in 2020, writes @ArgyleSport. #SuperRugby https://t.co/KpB1tqcF4r
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 3, 2020
However, Leon MacDonald’s squad blew a 19-5 half-time lead to fall to a resurgent second half Chiefs side in front of their home crowd, setting a tone of mediocrity for the season ahead once again.
For the sake of their fans, one hopes that the embattled franchise can clinch a morale-boosting victory in Newcastle against a youthful Waratahs team.
After missing out on a breakthrough play-offs appearance last season, the bar has been set high for the Rebels this year as they aim for a first-ever quarter-finals berth.
Tasked with dispatching a seemingly lowly Sunwolves outfit in round one, most felt that the Melbourne-based side had been dealt a favourable hand to kick their 2020 campaign off the right way, but their opponents had other ideas.
Without the experience of departed stars Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Adam Coleman, the Rebels were blown off the park by a Sunwolves team that had nothing to lose, and their aspirations of making the post-season took an early dent.
Head coach Dave Wessels said in the lead-up to the clash that Super Rugby is a competition for men, but it looks as though his squad still has a lot of growing up to do.
With Beauden Barrett gone to the Blues, Ardie Savea out with a long-term knee injury, Dane Coles left to rest in New Zealand and John Plumtree a late withdrawal to link up with the All Blacks’ coaching staff, the Hurricanes looked worryingly rusty in Cape Town without their quartet of integral figures.
Not even the return of TJ Perenara and Jordie Barrett could save the one-time Super Rugby champions, who severely lacked a clinical edge throughout their clash with the Stormers in hot conditions at Newlands.
Yellow cards to Vaea Fifita and Billy Proctor didn’t help their cause either, and Fletcher Smith’s quest to fill the gigantic boots of the older Barrett as the Hurricanes’ leading playmaker couldn’t have gone much more poorly.
A trip to Argentina to face the high-flying Jaguares beckons this week, and unless new head coach Jason Holland can find a quick-fix solution to the Hurricanes’ woes over the next few days, the Wellingtonians may have to wait until round three to pick up their first win of the year.
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