Stormers’ duty to the nation
They are marvelling at the sheer audacity and guts of it back in New Zealand ... whilst still pinching themselves to believe it actually happened.
I refer to the unfashionable Highlanders’ achievement of Mission Impossible last weekend: knocking over defending Super Rugby champions the Bulls in their own Loftus backyard, so extending their early-season charge to three wins from three and second place on the overall log only on a “for and against” basis from the Sharks.
Seasoned scribe Wynne Gray of the New Zealand Herald, for instance, rightly lauded the Otago side for their unwavering spirit and attitude, whilst virtually simultaneously making the point that they are a team “with a solitary senior All Black, Jimmy Cowan, and other bit-part internationals Adam Thomson, Tom Donnelly, Jamie Mackintosh and Ben Smith”.
Few in South Africa would have begrudged them their 35-28 victory, either, even if the mostly lethargic and robotic Bulls so nearly scrambled a draw.
I’d immediately spotted it on television in my own living room, after all, when inspirational loosehead prop Mackintosh got away with cheekily slapping the ball out of Fourie du Preez’s grasp at a ruck beneath the Highlanders’ posts as the home side sought a levelling seven-pointer at the death.
Gray, incidentally, branded it “a Hand of God incident, one to rival Diego Maradona or Thierry Henry’s hand-headers” and noted that referee Stuart Dickinson (an old South African less-than-favourite, of course) had experienced a “vision malfunction”.
But let’s not kid ourselves at the foot of Africa: the Highlanders were fantastic value for the score-line, positive in intent and execution to accompany their courage, and most in the stunned Pretoria crowd would have known it.
And that’s the really worrying thing from a broad South African perspective.
Because if the Highlanders, lacking most of New Zealand’s truest rugby superstars who remain embedded with such outfits as the Crusaders and Hurricanes, continue on their presently merry way by also knocking over the second best team in the Super 14 last year – the Stormers – under lights at Newlands on Friday, what signal is that sending out about our country’s health in the admittedly fledgling stages of a World Cup year?
So this is not just a mouth-watering meeting of two unbeaten teams: it is a key opportunity for the Stormers to find some missing spark – one pushover try in two narrowly-won home derbies is a very poor return for this traditionally attack-conscious outfit – but also allay fears that, the Sharks apart, South African rugby is looking a little too stale and leaden-footed right now.
Personally, while full of admiration for the way Jamie Joseph has got the Highlanders’ heart ticking, I still fancy that a “correction” will gradually take place and their runaway start be arrested.
For the record, straight after they tackle the Stormers they return home to entertain the Crusaders ahead of a bye.
There must remain a pretty good chance, with respect, that they will lose both and thus the present hype around them quickly become more muted, especially as the slog goes on and injuries particularly test the depth of smaller-stocked franchises.
I made the point last Saturday night that the Highlanders, who finished a lowly 12th in the 2010 Super 14 with three wins from their 13 games, haven’t exactly invested in a galaxy of household names from elsewhere in the interim.
Indeed, they will probably start on Friday with some eight or nine of the same players who turned out at Newlands last year, when the Stormers clinically shut them out 33-0 on March 6 and also registered a bonus-point try via Bryan Habana in the 79th minute for the proverbial cherry on top.
So if the Highlanders, this time, somehow manage to run rings around the Stormers, always lauded for their defensive structure and ability, and whoop it up in victory abroad once more, South African rugby will be looking just a bit shaky, don’t you think?
The home outfit not only prevailing, but doing so with a pinch of pizzazz, would be a timely development.
For if you remove the purposeful, smooth-functioning Sharks from the equation, the remainder of the South African sides have thus far been serving up a brand of rugby not far short of cold cabbage soup.
And that needs to change fast, if sceptical rugby fans across the land are to be persuaded that the dramatic expansion of the competition has actually been a good thing ...
Rob Houwing is Sport24’s chief writer
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