Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Find your overdue try-scoring mojo over the course of the last two ordinary-season matches in Super Rugby and the right to a possible home final beckons very brightly.
That is the incentive facing the Stormers, SA conference leaders and presently second overall, as they contemplate their respective fixtures against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday and then the Melbourne Rebels at Newlands a week later.
The log-leading Chiefs’ 28-21 home loss to the Crusaders on Friday means the scenario is this “simple” for Jean de Villiers and company: score bonus-point wins each time and ending at the head of the pile is assured.
That is because even if the Waikato side earn a full house away to the Hurricanes in the final round – a tricky prospect although their opponents’ traditionally free-flowing and risky style is perhaps a comfort – they can only get as far as 68 points.
The Stormers (58 points) currently trail by five points but with the Cheetahs game this weekend in hand: triumph with a bonus point at Free State Stadium and they will draw level, but move top by virtue of boasting one more win (13 to the Chiefs’ 12).
The Capetonians would then know that another “maximum” haul against the limited Rebels back at their own stronghold next Saturday would guarantee top place, and the right both to a home semi-final and possible showpiece on August 4, even if the Chiefs earn five points at Wellington’s “Cake Tin”.
Indeed, if the Hurricanes – still pressing for a playoffs spot themselves, remember – have knocked over the Chiefs next Friday by a margin wider than seven points, then it is possible even a losing bonus point would be enough for the Stormers the next day to secure No 1 spot on the table, assuming they have returned from Bloemfontein with five log points.
That would leave the Stormers on a final tally of 64 points. Both the Brumbies and local conference rivals the Bulls can still earn a maximum of 64 points, but both would have earned fewer wins in doing so and not be able to leapfrog the Stormers.
There have been some raised eyebrows among critics for the Stormers’ failure thus far to register four tries in any of their 14 matches, yet recent history suggests that belatedly doing so against both the Cheetahs and Rebels can hardly be discounted.
The Stormers played the Cheetahs in the last round of conference activity last season away, and Bryan Habana’s try just short of the hour mark then brought them the quartet of touchdowns in what later turned into a 44-34 victory.
Given the up-tempo type of rugby the Cheetahs traditionally favour, and their being out of playoffs contention, an open game is quite possible if the weather plays ball – there is talk of some rain – and that could play conveniently into the Stormers’ hands again, especially given their own defensive and attack-from-turnover prowess.
Coach Allister Coetzee always adopts a “win it first, worry about the four tries later” sort of philosophy, but even he will tick off each try especially gleefully, if a good number do come for his charges in the Free State, given the knowledge of the Chiefs’ handy slip-up.
Scoring a bonus-point win over the Rebels a week on also seems a good prospect for the Stormers; they have only met the fledgling franchise once before, in Melbourne last season, and came away then with “maximum” after a 40-3 drubbing of the home team.
Meanwhile, though, both the Crusaders and the Reds (against the Highlanders) winning on Friday, albeit without bonus points, only cranks up the pressure on the eighth-placed Sharks, particularly, to win the imminent floodlit derby against the fifth-placed Bulls.
From a broad South African perspective, the chances of the three best teams from our conference all getting into the six-team playoffs are best served by a Sharks win, although preferably with the Bulls earning one or even two bonus points in defeat.
The Sharks will naturally get no favours from the visitors from Pretoria, jockeying for the best possible finishing spot themselves to earn a reasonable itinerary in the playoffs.
But certainly a Sharks reverse – it would be their seventh of the campaign -- would leave it highly unlikely that John Plumtree’s troops could squeeze through the bottleneck, even with one remaining game at home to the Cheetahs.
Remaining fixtures in this round (home teams first):
Friday night: Sharks v Bulls. Saturday: Blues v Force, Waratahs v Brumbies, Cheetahs v Stormers, Lions v Rebels.
Next Friday: Hurricanes v Chiefs. Saturday: Brumbies v Blues, Crusaders v Force, Reds v Waratahs, Stormers v Rebels, Sharks v Cheetahs, Bulls v Lions. Bye: Highlanders.
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