Super Rugby Rebooted Round 3: Sunwolves offer food for thought

Round 3 proved to be a historic week of Super Rugby, highlighted by the Sunwolves winning away from home for the first in franchise history with a stunning victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton.

Not only does the Sunwolves' win break a 24-game losing streak outside of Japan, but it also presents an intriguing opportunity during a significant period of change in world rugby.

Read on as we review some of the big talking points from Round 3.

AUSTRALIAN CONFERENCE

Sunwolves produce momentous result that offers food for thought

Melbourne Rebels may have pulled off the only Australian victory of Round 3, but they were pipped by the Sunwolves for the conference's best performance as the Japanese side picked up their first away win -- a 30-15 victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton.

The Sunwolves' result was timely in more ways than one. Seven days earlier, they had gone agonisingly close to upsetting the Waratahs; only a desperate Karmichael Hunt had denied them a match-winning drop goal. That could have been the sort of defeat that sent them spiralling towards a heavy loss seven days later, but instead they outplayed the Chiefs throughout to record a 15-point victory.

More importantly, it is a result built on the back of a spare-parts team that the Sunwolves coaching staff have been forced to throw together because of the Brave Blossoms' pre-World Cup camp.

It is true the Sunwolves are without many of their best Japanese players, which has raised questions about the franchise's place in Super Rugby itself. A common thought has been: Why should the Sunwolves be in Super Rugby if the team is doing little to strengthen the Japanese union and national side on the whole?

However, there is a counter argument to that, and one that is particularly pertinent given the rumours last week that the Pacific Islands would be squeezed out of a new World League.

World Rugby has since tried to distance itself from those rumours, saying it did not want to shut the Islands out, and that it was in fact in favour of a promotion-and-relegation system.

There is also constant speculation about the future of Super Rugby, and what form the competition will take down the line.

Put simply, this is the most uncertain period in world rugby since the formation of SANZAAR and the very real threat that was the World Rugby Corporation.

So here's a thought for the future of the Sunwolves, and Super Rugby at least: Form a strategic alliance between Japan and the Pacific Islands that could be mutually beneficial. The Islands have long wanted a team in Super Rugby, a Fijian consortium had a recent bid rejected by SANZAAR, and this could help to facilitate that, while strengthening the Sunwolves team -- or potentially multiple teams -- into the future.

Apart from expat New Zealanders, Australians and South Africans who all combined with the remaining Japan-eligible players to helped forge the win over the Chiefs, what if there were an opportunity for more Fijian, Tongan and Samoan players to remain in the region, and help to drive the continued improvement of Japanese rugby on the whole, too?

It's a plan worth some serious thought given the almost worldwide condemnation of World Rugby's rumoured plans.

The impact of the non-Japanese players on their Sunwolves' victory at the weekend was huge, while Tongan-born Brave Blossoms back-rower Uwe Helu was unstoppable through the middle of the paddock. This was not a case of the Sunwolves getting lucky; the visitors dominated the Chiefs in most facets of the game, while the hosts made a heap of mistakes when in possession.

It was a momentous result for Super Rugby, perhaps more-so than many in the game might realise.

NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE

Chiefs and Blues done already?

At 0-3 for the season, is it already curtains for the Chiefs and Blues?

It's certainly going to need a major resurgence in form for either franchise to figure in the playoffs after they both slipped to a third straight defeat at the weekend.

The Blues, who were beaten 23-19 in Buenos Aires by the Jaguares in Round 3, look like a team that has forgotten how to win. After showing promise in a first-up defeat at home to the Crusaders, they then were blown off the paddock by the Sharks in the first half in Durban.

But in Argentina at the weekend, they dominated possession and territory only to let themselves down in the key moments.

It may be that the Blues need a moment of luck to fall their way and their fortunes will follow suit. But for now, they are short on confidence and their execution under pressure is failing as a result of that.

The outlook may be worse for the Chiefs, though.

Having blown what should have been a comfortable victory at home in Round 1, particularly when the Highlanders were reduced to 14 men late on, the Chiefs were then destroyed by the Brumbies in Canberra.

A visit from the Sunwolves would have seemed to be the perfect opportunity to right the ship, but they instead were out-enthused by their Japanese guests who were far more desperate and willing to fight for every ball.

Sam Cane's absence was always going to leave a huge hole in the two-time champions' squad, but few would have thought they would look so inept without him. The Chiefs have other injuries, too, but no more so than any other New Zealand franchise trying to balance mandatory All Blacks rest weeks.

The 24 turnovers they committed against the Sunwolves will stand out like a sore thumb for coach Colin Cooper, and just how he is able to bring his side back from the demoralising defeat will be a measure of his coaching, too.

With games against the Crusaders and Hurricanes, and then a two-week tour to face the Bulls and Jaguares, to come, Cooper's task is one few coaches would envy.

SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE

Bulls are learning each week

We pondered in our Super Rugby Round 3 What 2 Watch 4 preview whether the Lions had the ability to cope without their injured captain, Warren Whiteley. We wondered also how the Sharks might cope with the physicality of their first South African derby of the Super Rugby season, after victories against the Sunwolves and the Blues. We thought the Lions and the Sharks would both be tested but were likely to provide a positive answer. Turns out we were wrong. Both sides were particularly disappointing, albeit against rivals who were much better on the day.

The Lions showed in multiple fixtures last season that they were vulnerable without Whiteley's hand on the tiller, and again there were signs of weakness in their post-siren defeat by the Stormers at Newlands in Round 2. But this was very different again.

The Lions had won six of their previous games against the Bulls, including the previous four, and they had not lost to their Gauteng rivals in Johannesburg since 2014. Furthermore they had not lost when hosting South African rivals in 14 games since February 2015; that's quite a home-field advantage yet they were inept in their first home game of the season -- beaten in every facet of the game, including at the set-piece, as the Bulls won 30-12 . They weren't just beaten. They were out-muscled and out-played; more worryingly, they were out-thought, unable to adapt when it was clear the Bulls were not playing according to expectation.

Malcolm Marx, the Lions' stand-in captain, said after the game that they would "have to go back to the video to see where we went wrong", and that's true; but they must surely also be concerned if they couldn't see or feel on the pitch, in the heat of battle, where it was going wrong. No team needs video analysis to explain how they missed 29 tackles - 18 in the first half, when they struggled to get the ball (and to keep it when they did). And having paid the price for poor discipline against the Stormers the week before, they must surely also look inwards having conceded 11 penalties against the Bulls (six of which were kicked for a match-turning 18 points by Handre Pollard).

The Bulls were sensational in winning this latest Jukskei Derby, particularly in the first half - when they kicked deep, chased well and pressured the Lions to such an extent that the visitors had 66 percent of possession and 77 percent of territory. That level of dominance is good, however, only if a team does something with it; one try, by Duane Vermeulen, and three penalties by Pollard were the least the Bulls deserved while the Lions were lucky to have nil at halftime.

The Lions improved in the second half, in as much that they dominated possession and territory, and they scored two good tries through their props, but mistakes and ill-discipline in the face of solid Bulls defence continued to cruel them and their northern rivals continued to take every advantage; the Bulls scored again, through Warrick Gelant, after the Lions had botched a quick lineout while trying to chase the game, and that try, as much as the accuracy of Pollard, who had decided as the Bulls' stand-in-captain to take every point on offer, was key in illustrating the difference between the teams. The Lions could not be faulted for chasing the game, but the positioning of players (Lions and Bulls alike) meant the opportunity to do so wasn't really there; better to have taken a set lineout, and built from there. They made a poor decision, then executed the play in poor fashion, and they were punished by a team that was more clinical.

The Bulls now have compiled two impressive victories against South African rivals either side of their disappointing performance in dismal conditions in Buenos Aires. The hallmark of the two wins has been a clear and simple game plan (albeit a different plan on both occasions) that was executed in almost flawless fashion. The defeat in Argentina was disappointing primarily because of the lack of the calm and authoritative leadership displayed in their victories, as they clearly attempted to play too much rugby too soon in the conditions.

Their performance against the Lions in Jozi, the cool leadership of Pollard, Vermeulen and Schalk Brits, and the calm execution - in particular by Eli Snyman, who was a colossus on starting debut as a replacement for Lood de Jaeger - indicates they are major players in the South African conference, and it will be interesting to see the development of what is a young squad. Certainly, the Bulls' fixture back home at Loftus Versfeld, next week, against the Sharks, who still lead the South African Conference despite losing at home to the Stormers in Round 3, will represent another stage on their learning curve.