Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Finish top of the overall log after ordinary season and you will almost certainly go on to win the Super Rugby title as well.
That is the heartening historical message to the Stormers, as they look forward to a reinvigorating bye week before a home semi-final in the last weekend of July.
They will certainly hope the little “gap” period pays dividends for them because some critics might argue that a week’s inactivity isn’t automatically their best fate after a poor showing on Saturday in which they were outscored by three tries to two, despite narrowly beating the unfashionable Melbourne Rebels in their last league encounter at Newlands.
But the fact remains that the Stormers have headed the pre-playoffs phase for the first time, displaying an admirable ability to prevail in close contests and in spite of occasionally horrendous injury-related setbacks right through the marathon season.
The history of the competition is such that the team ending in that table-topping situation overwhelmingly goes on to clinch the trophy as well - something never yet achieved by the Capetonians despite prior appearances in one final (2010) and three other occasions in which they have been losing semi-finalists.
In the past 12 seasons, since 2000, only twice has the team topping the log not gone on to pick up the silverware.
Those exceptions were in 2000 itself, when the Brumbies headed the table but lost 20-19 in the Canberra final to the Crusaders, and the last occasion of 2007, when the Sharks won the round-robin phase but lost by exactly the same score-line in the Kings Park showpiece to South African rivals the Bulls.
Even then, the latter game will forever be remembered for the Sharks leading at the sounding of the fatally low-volume stadium hooter, only for Springbok wing Bryan Habana
, then a Bulls player, to glide infield and steal the contest for the visitors with a last-gasp try.
But every other time in the past dozen years, the side winning the league phase - cashing in on the advantageous, home-staged knockout itinerary - has also claimed the full spoils.
Less comforting for the Bulls and Sharks, the other two SA teams to make this season’s finals series, is how overseas travel in the playoffs all too often proves statistically to be a bridge too far.
South African teams traditionally make a special hash of things in this period of the competition, with last year - the first of the new conference system - just another case in point.
The Sharks sneaked into the finals series at the late expense of the Bulls then, and quickly succumbed 36-8 to the Crusaders in a New Zealand-staged qualifier; this year it is the turn of the Bulls to play the ‘Saders in their own terrain (Saturday, 09:35 SA time) with the men from Durban tackling the defending champion Reds in Brisbane in the 11:40 kick-off slot.
You have to go as far back as 1996, the advent of the competition as the “Super 12”, for the last time a South African side won a knockout-stage game in Australasia, the semi-final in Brisbane where Natal beat the Queensland Reds 43-25.
The overall record is grim: 11 losses from 12 such knockout occasions for SA teams abroad.This is the full list of those defeats:
2011 finals series qualifier: Crusaders 36 Sharks 8
2008 semi-final: Waratahs 28 Sharks 13
2006 semi-final: Crusaders 35 Bulls 15
2005 semi-final: Waratahs 23 Bulls 13
2004 semi-final: Crusaders 27 Stormers 16
2001 final: Brumbies 36 Sharks 6
2000 semi-final: Brumbies 28 Cats 5
1998 semi-final: Crusaders 36 Sharks 32
1997 semi-final: Blues 55 Natal 36
1996 semi-final: Blues 48 Northern Transvaal 11
1996 final: Blues 45 Sharks 21
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