It was a weekend of close encounters in the first round of the 2011 Super Rugby season.
Past form meant little heading into a new year, and the teams that have struggled over the past seasons were as good as their more fancied opponents—in some cases better.
The Highlanders and Hurricanes got the competition underway with a tightly-fought game built on strong forward play and good defence. After being written off by many, the Highlanders prevailed 14-9 through a more dominant forward pack, as Southland were able to in last year's ITM Cup.
Ma'a Nonu's second yellow card with 30 minutes to go put Hurricanes at a distinct disadvantage. They were subsequently unable to cross the line, despite possessing the most dangerous backline in the competition.
The other New Zealand conference game saw the Blues upset the Crusaders 24-22. After trailing 19-6 at the break, the Blues rallied in the second half, with the comeback sparked by Rene Ranger. Both sides looked to attack well, defence was brutal at both ends of the park.
Both games featured poor goal-kicking. Dan Carter wasn't at his usual best, while the Highlanders eagerly await the return of Colin Slade.
These two sides should be fine with the boot as the season progresses. However, Aaron Cruden and Stephen Brett don't provide the same confidence—goal-kicking could be an issue for the Hurricanes and Blues this year if they don't get it sorted soon.
Many people predicted a better year from the Lions this year, so an eager crowd gathered at Ellis Park to see them take on the defending champion Bulls.
However, with a 24-5 scoreline in favour of the Bulls at the break, it seemed that it was going to be business as usual for South Africa's best and worst Super Rugby sides from the past few years.
But in the second half, the Lions finally showed why they will be a tough team to beat this year, scoring 15 unanswered points and nearly robbing the Bulls in the dying stages of the match. The Bulls defence held, and they walked away with a four-point win.
The other South African game saw the Sharks take on the Cheetahs in wet conditions in Durban.
It wasn't the best game from either side, but a dominant forward pack from the Sharks told in the end. They were able to walk away with a 24-9 win after scoring two tries from rolling mauls.
Coach John Plumtree might not be happy with the performance. But the win is a positive for the Sharks, as their terrible run at the start of last year's competition cost them a place in the top four.
A close encounter saw the Force almost pull off a huge upset win over the Reds.
It is a testament to the fitness of both sides that they were able to play so well in the blistering heat (resulting in an extraordinary loss of body fluid). The Force dominated up front but were only able to turn this into one try, through youngster James O'Connor.
It was too much to ask of a young Force outfit. The Reds crossed the line in the dying stages to snatch victory by taking the score to 21-20.
The Waratahs vs. Rebels game, meanwhile, showed why Super Rugby should never have expanded beyond 14 teams.
The Rebels looked completely out of their depth. After a promising first 10 minutes, they were unable to contain a Waratahs side who cut them to bits, winning 43-0.
The only non-conference game of the round saw the Brumbies host the Chiefs in a game that went down to the final whistle. The Chiefs couldn't make the most of their early opportunities, and the Brumbies shot to a halftime lead.
The Chiefs came back, but a late try from the Brumbies sealed the win. A try in the final minute, however, gave the Chiefs a bonus point. The score finished up 28-22.
What we can see from these games is that 2011 will be a very tightly fought competition. With the local derbies, everyone has extra incentive to get one over their fellow country men. This will particularly be the case with the South African teams.
The Lions and the Cheetahs are traditionally two of the weaker teams in the competition but always provide a stiff challenge to their South African counterparts.
The other notable feature was the quality of rugby by some of the teams that have been off the pace.
The Highlanders, Blues and Lions all looked capable of beating anyone in their own way. These three teams were all dominant in the '90s, and, along with the Reds and Crusaders, were the top teams of the Super competitions for a number of years.
With the Reds finding form in 2010, could 2011 mark the resurgence of three of the other '90s powerhouses?
Round 2 begins on Friday night with the Highlanders hosting the Chiefs at Carisbrook. The Highlanders face a Chiefs team featuring eight changes in their line-up, and if it is anything like Round 1, we are in for another good weekend of rugby.
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