Vodacom Super 14
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Perth mercy for Stormers
Cape Town – Suddenly it's back to baby steps, if you like, for the Stormers.
Never mind the excited talk among their supporters a few days ago of a glorious home gallop into and then through the knockout phase of the Vodacom Super 14: first they’ve got to walk the rather important walk simply into the semi-finals.
Friday’s agonising 16-13 defeat to the ever-progressing Reds meant that the Stormers could yet be elbowed out of the semis picture altogether, if they only win one of their stiff last three fixtures in the competition.
But even as they were nursing their wounds – and ominously there were a few of those – in the Suncorp Stadium dressing room, an unexpected silver lining was only a couple of hours away.
It came in the form of the lowly Western Force’s upset 24-16 win against the Crusaders in Perth, after the home side had trailed 13-0 at one stage -- many Stormers fans would probably have resigned themselves at that point to the seasoned New Zealanders comfortably grabbing first place on the table.
But a late penalty to the Force, after they had already clawed back to seize a 21-16 lead, even stole a losing bonus point from the gutted Crusaders and it meant the Stormers clung to pole position on points differential from the Christchurch-based crew.
So despite their loss in Brisbane, the Stormers actually gained a point on the very team they play at Newlands next Friday night, courtesy of their own consolation bonus point in their final overseas fixture, and grabbed the log lead – although there are four teams perched on 34 points.
They had Bryan Habana’s defensive heroism to thank for that, too, because Will Genia was disallowed a touch-and-go late try after television review; it was ruled that the Springbok wing’s arm had prevented the Reds scrumhalf from grounding the ball.
Perhaps the team smiling the most after Friday’s three-game action was the Bulls, who will now go well clear – possibly by five points – if they see off the lowly Lions easily in Saturday’s Highveld derby, leaping from fourth to first in the process.
Compatriots the Sharks would not have been unhappy, either, because the Cheetahs’ rare “non-defeat” overseas – a plucky 25-25 draw against the Chiefs in a mistake-littered encounter – almost certainly knocked the Hamilton-based team out of last-four contention and meant one less hurdle for John Smit and company to worry about as long as they keep on winning with good harvests themselves.
The Sharks do remain very long shots, however, to make the cut, and have to thump fellow-challengers the Blues at Absa Stadium on Saturday.
As for the Stormers, their assault on the semis obviously remains considerably more realistic, but there is real pressure now on them to win at least twice from three successive, unenviable matches against the Crusaders (home), Sharks (away) and Bulls (home).
They still have the fatiguing homeward journey to undergo, and will be all too aware that the Crusaders tend not to “do” two defeats on the trot – Richie McCaw’s men will also harbour pleasant memories of Cape Town two years ago, when they won 22-0.
And the Stormers might secretly hope that by the time they play the Sharks, the Durban outfit will finally be out of the running.
Fat chance, though, that their big coastal rivals will be any less motivated: South African derbies are unforgiving regardless of pre-match circumstance, and the fact that Springbok selection will not be a faraway matter by then also means the Sharks will refuse to simply roll over.
Still, Friday did not end so depressingly for the Stormers courtesy of events in Perth, even if they have now lost to three of their four Australian opponents this season – the Waratahs at Newlands the sole exception.
And as cock-a-hoop as the Reds were after the final whistle, they must get up all over again next weekend for an Aussie derby against the Brumbies, away. If the heat is rising on the Stormers, it is certainly doing so for others with title ambitions.
Perhaps the biggest concern after the Brisbane loss on a slippery surface -- where Schalk Burger’s men nevertheless had some passages of really good rugby -- was the fact that injuries may just be taking a mounting toll.
Loosehead prop JC Kritzinger hobbled off in the 18th minute, supposedly having just returned to fitness, although JD Moller contributed to a strong scrummaging effort in his place.
Habana battled on resolutely despite the impediment of a big knock to his lower left leg, key lock Andries Bekker paused to have his wrist strapped in the 69th minute, and second-row colleague Adriaan Fondse looked a little ginger as he was replaced by Anton van Zyl in the last quarter – although that has tended to be a routine freshening substitution.
But it is a bad time of the campaign for too many players to be carrying injuries, even if some are just niggles, isn’t it?