Pacific newcomers Fijian Drua had a rude introduction to Super Rugby with a heavy defeat while 12-time champions Canterbury Crusaders ground out a victory as the new season kicked off over the weekend.
The southern hemisphere tournament has undergone yet another revamp this year with the addition of two Pacific islander teams for the first time to compete alongside the best from Australia and New Zealand.
South African sides pulled out in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, while Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves were axed.
Organisers hope the inclusion of the Pacific islands teams will pique the interest of fans and help build on the region’s rich rugby heritage.
But Fijian Drua struggled on their debut, crashing 40-10 in Sydney against the NSW Waratahs — a team who had a horror 2021 when they failed to win a game.
A nervous Drua, based in Australia, were sloppy at the set-piece and conceded 20 turnovers as Darren Coleman’s men ran in five tries to one.
Wallabies Angus Bell and Jake Gordon, along with Dave Porecki, Will Harris and Lalakai Foketi all went over.
Drua captain Nemani Nagusa earned the honour of scoring their first Super Rugby try in the 64th minute, but it was little more than a consolation.
Fijian head coach Mick Byrne said his players would learn quickly from their first taste of top competition.
“I think the boys found out what Super Rugby’s about,” Byrne said.
“They went out there and expressed themselves and I’m really proud of the way they fought out the game and hung in there and threw everything at it.
“I’m really pleased with our first step out. We learned a lot. I think the pace of the game, the boys now realise what Super Rugby is about and they’re excited to be part of it,” said Byrne.
“It’s been a long time since we put on a performance like that, that we’re really proud of,” said Waratahs captain Gordon.
Auckland-based Moana Pasifika, who are harnessing talent from Tonga and Samoa, had their debut against Auckland Blues postponed as the Pasifika squad were placed in isolation after seven players tested positive for Covid-19.
Despite the Blues winning the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title last year, Scott Robertson’s Crusaders are red-hot favourites for the 2022 edition.
They downed the Ardie Savea-led Wellington Hurricanes 42-32 in an eerily-quiet Forsyth Barr Stadium at Dunedin with Leicester Fainga’anuku bagging a hat-trick in a scrappy affair.
Spearheaded by Jordie Barrett, the Hurricanes had three tries disallowed with the Crusaders scrum and lineout making the difference, helping to relieve pressure and turn territory into points.
“We’re happy, there’s no injuries, some really good performances, some really good moments, some pretty courageous defence,2 said Robertson.
All New Zealand teams are currently based in a 2bubble2 in Queenstown because of Covid-19 with matches being played in Queenstown and Dunedin.
At the nearly deserted Queenstown Recreation Ground, an ill-disciplined Otago Highlanders crashed 26-16 to the Waikato Chiefs who enjoyed dominant performances by All Blacks Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick.
Last season’s Super Rugby AU champions Queensland Reds beat the Melbourne Rebels 23-5 in a dour opener at Brisbane.
In a game riddled with errors on a wet day, powerhouse prop Taniela Tupou, No.8 Harry Wilson and fullback Jock Campbell dotted down for the home side.
Reds co-captain Tate McDermott said they must improve to beat the Waratahs this weekend.
“There are areas like our defence, which was a positive, but there are so many other things which we can work on. We’ve just got to be better -– it’s as simple as that,” he said.
In Canberra, the ACT Brumbies outlasted Western Force 29-23.