Stormers break 11-year jinx
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Stormers, without too much fuss or angst, have duly put the finishing touches to confirming an all-South African semi-final bill in the Vodacom Super 14 for 2010.
The Crusaders and Waratahs have to make the great trek to our shores for next Saturday’s showdowns with the Bulls at Orlando Stadium and Stormers at Newlands respectively, after Schalk Burger’s team comfortably saw off a second-string Bulls XV 38-10 in their final league encounter to clinch the runner-up slot.
It means that the country stages both semis for only the second time in Super rugby history, and the first occasion since 2007, when the Bulls beat the very same Crusaders 27-12 and the Sharks downed the Blues 34-18 to set up an Absa Stadium final.
On Saturday night the Stormers toasted not only their efficient triumph over Bakkies Botha’s uncompromising but otherwise limited Bulls “reserves”, but also the achievement of their first Newlands last-four appearance since 1999, the height of the “Men in Black” hype when the Stormers crashed 33-18 to the Highlanders after the unsettling effects of a pre-match pay hoo-ha.
With a bit of luck, there will be no such distractions this time, because they will certainly need to produce their optimum game against the Waratahs, despite the knowledge that a second full house in seven days is sure to urge them on.
Yet the portents for a dream final between the Bulls and Stormers – both at full strength this time, of course – are pretty good.
For one thing, the Stormers squeezed the ‘Tahs as though they were a mere sponge in prevailing 27-6 when the teams met much earlier in the campaign, on a hot mid-February day at the same venue where they will contest the semi.
And apart from the fatiguing effects of another long-haul flight to South Africa at the tail-end of the tournament, Phil Waugh’s team will be missing two key members of their pack this time through injury: strong loosehead prop Benn Robinson and the big, “go-forward” No 8 Cliffie Palu who tore knee ligaments a few weeks ago.
That said, the ‘Tahs appear to have peaked at a good time this year, adding some key elements of enterprise to their pragmatic, sometimes criticised game-plan.
They put the Hurricanes away quite easily in securing their own last-four spot, and afterwards Waugh specifically referred to the sparkling way former flyhalf Kurtley Beale has adapted to life at fullback – he has given them a bit of overdue X-factor in the backline.
And their chief executive Jim L’Estrange has been quick to try to pooh-pooh the travel factor, having been reported in the Australian press as saying: “(Cape Town) is similar to Sydney … it’s almost like playing at home. I’m sure the boys will be comfortable there.”
The Waratahs’ record in the city prior to their grilling this year is rather better: they drew 13-13 on a stormy May night in 2008 and also won 32-26 at Newlands in 2006.
The defending champions and table-topping Bulls, meanwhile, will not be unnerved by Saturday’s reasonably heavy reverse at Newlands, considering that the vast majority of their first-choice players were spending the weekend with their feet up, and now contemplating the Crusaders’ second visit to the Highveld in a fortnight even if it will not be to Loftus.
The Crusaders have tackled the Bulls on two prior occasions in South Africa at the semi-final stage, and been on the receiving end each time (2007 and 2009).
But they, too, have rediscovered some relish since their winless overseas tour recently and thumped the Brumbies with surprising ease to clinch their own passage to the knockout stage.
It is still difficult to imagine bookies, though, fancying away victories next weekend that would block the dream SA “north v south” final in Soweto.
The Stormers got their slightly unconventional job done in professional fashion against the Bulls at Newlands, scoring four tries to one and only really having their own try-line troubled in the last quarter when coach Allister Coetzee wisely emptied the Stormers bench to allow some vital rest for players like Andries Bekker, Francois Louw and Brok Harris.
The only prospect of a “Bulls B” upset was always likely to be if they got in front early and started to cause some butterflies in the home camp; the reverse happened as ex-Loftus favourite Bryan Habana dotted down in the fifth minute and the Stormers were basically on their way.
It was nevertheless a physical, sometimes tetchy encounter with the Bulls clearly keen to leave some bruises on a bunch of players who might just run into their “A-team” in a fortnight.
Botha, that unlikeliest of captains, got into occasional, relatively minor ding-dongs with the likes of Adriaan Fondse, Francois Louw and his rival skipper Burger, while Bulls second-row colleague Flip van der Merwe could be in trouble for a palpably late barge on Burger that left the impressive Springbok flank nursing a shoulder for a while.
Bekker also caused some consternation for the home side when he went down with what looked like an injured wrist before half-time, but he did re-appear for a few minutes after the break which presumably meant no lasting damage.
One area of worry for the Stormers, in an otherwise decent and dominant day at the office, was their scrummaging – it took strain in the defeat to the Sharks last week and again seemed to be on the back foot a tad against this makeshift Bulls combo.
The Waratahs are sure to have made a little mental note …