When hype meets reality
The first full round of Super Rugby separated hype from reality for some purported title contenders and revealed a competition that may be stronger across the board than at any time in recent seasons.
The Crusaders and Blues in New Zealand and the Stormers in South Africa, all touted as potential champions, opened their campaigns with defeats.
South Africa's Sharks and Lions won their second straight games, and the defending champion Chiefs and the Reds won thrilling derbies.
The circumstances of the Chiefs' 18-10 win over the Crusaders and the Reds' 27-17 win over the Brumbies were incredibly similar.
Both led at half-time then absorbed enormous defensive pressure throughout the second half before clinching wins with late tries.
The Sharks lead the tournament with two wins from two games, a bonus point ahead of the newly-promoted Lions, who shocked the Stormers 34-10.
The Dunedin-based Highlanders, who took a bonus point from their 29-21 win over the Auckland-based Blues, are next in the standings, ahead of the Cheetahs, Reds and Chiefs.
The Chiefs were depleted by injuries and facing a Crusaders side led at home by All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.
They seized the lead after nine minutes with a try to former Crusaders centre Robbie Fruean, who is making a comeback after his second heart surgery, and led for the rest of the match, despite the Crusaders' desperate efforts to break down their defence.
The Crusaders closed to 11-10 with seven minutes remaining, but an intercept try to rookie James Lowe in the last minute clinched the Chiefs' win. Aaron Cruden's sideline conversion denied the Crusaders the consolation of a bonus point.
"It was incredibly gutsy," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said.
"We gave away far too many penalties and it gave them field position and opportunities to kick for goal."
The Reds showed the same degree of defensive strength against the Brumbies. Tries to Lachie Turner and fullback Aidan Toua gave them a 17-9 lead at halftime before Brumbies fullback Jesse Mogg cut the lead to 20-17 with 23 minutes remaining.
Mogg then dropped a kick in front of his own goal line in the 79th minute, allowing Chris Feauai-Sautia to score the try that sealed the win.
"We're pleased we stuck to the game plan," Reds captain James Horwill said.
"There were times in that second half we were our own worst enemies, giving away silly penalties and making mistakes at our end. But it was pleasing that we stuck to what we wanted to do and got the result we were looking for."
The Blues were considered possible title contenders after bolstering their roster between seasons, but they launched their campaign with a loss to the Highlanders.
Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith scored tries to give the Highlanders a 24-0 halftime lead. They then held off a torrid Blues comeback to win 29-21, also denying their rivals a bonus point.
The Lions surprised again after their promotion back to Super Rugby with a thumping 34-10 win over the Stormers, with flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff kicking three dropped goals in his 29 points.
Centre Stefan Watermeyer scored a try in the second minute, before Boshoff took over – landing a conversion, three drop-goals and six penalties.
The Sharks continued their strong start under new coach Jake White with a hard-fought 27-9 win over New Zealand's Hurricanes.
The Durban-based Sharks had early tries from Springboks Willem Alberts and Lwazi Mvovo, but didn't break completely clear of the Hurricanes until wing Mvovo's intercept try with just over 15 minutes to go.