Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Will a week prove to have been long enough for
the Stormers to have remedied their array of woes from Loftus?
That question will be answered at Kings Park on Saturday
(kick-off 19:10) when they tackle the Sharks in “phase two” of their stiff three-match
start to Super Rugby 2013, which is also to feature the visit of champions the
Chiefs to Newlands before Allister Coetzee’s charges pause for a deep breath
with a bye.
The Durban date is keenly awaited nationwide, as it pits
against each other the indisputably best-performing franchises in South Africa
from last season as a whole: not only did eventual finalists the Sharks and the
conference-topping Stormers go further than anyone else from these parts in
Super Rugby, but they also met again in their slightly different guises in the
Currie Cup final.
Sharks coach John Plumtree wasted no time this week in
pointing out that “our motivation in the off-season” was the slightly upset
25-18 loss in the latter final, against a weakened but grimly determined
Western Province outfit.
Some may interpret that as a deliberate, tactical move to
kick an already wounded animal, given the Stormers’ rank incompetence, frankly,
in the deserved reverse to the Bulls last Friday.
But it is also impossible to escape the far from
insignificant thought that the Sharks, in holding off the Cheetahs in a
pulsating Bloemfontein clash, displayed strengths in all the areas where the
Stormers had earlier come up glaringly short on the Highveld.
So with home advantage in the unforgiving KwaZulu/Natal late
summer humidity just another handy ally, it is difficult to believe too many
tipsters will be leaning confidently toward the Capetonians.
First and foremost, perhaps, the Sharks scrum largely
delivered a compelling performance in that area that was in marked contrast to
the Stormers’ failed quest to subdue a Bulls eight not especially renowned in
recent years for technical ability in the department.
Springbok prop stalwarts Jannie du Plessis and Tendai
Mtawarira looked in ominously good early-season nick against the retreating
Cheetahs, with the “Beast” appearing to take special relish in turning the heat
on Coenie Oosthuizen when the admittedly undercooked behemoth entered the fray after
a long layoff as a substitute at tighthead.
Whether or not the Stormers tweak their front row (and tight
five more broadly) for Saturday, expect the home side to spiritedly seek
ascendancy once more at scrum-time.
Another phenomenon from the last round of matches was the
Sharks showing positive signs of rectifying their lineout game ... an Achilles’
heel for several years.
Franco van der Merwe has been a shrewd loan pick-up from the
Lions, with his influence evident as the Sharks put plenty of pressure on the
Cheetahs’ throw-in, even if their own wasn’t quite the finished article.
Again by contrast, the Stormers were unusually blundering at
the lineout against the Bulls; they could not even get the 2.08m trump card
Andries Bekker into the game in that facet much, although lock partner De Kock
Steenkamp – whilst still not the ideal No 4 in a broader sense -- mercifully
banked a few clean takes.
Bekker will come under scrutiny in Durban: the lanky Bok was
as patchy as the rest of his team-mates at Loftus, and if he sometimes loomed
up effectively with those long strides of his in wide positions during attacking
moves, he may well be expected to be more influential much nearer the coalface
Then how about the greatly differing fortunes of the
If Stormers debutant Elton Jantjies scored no more than a
hypothetical “four out of 10” at Loftus (his strangely wayward place-kicking
especially marking him down), Pat Lambie arguably registered an altogether more
glowing eight in Bloemfontein.
Not only did Test incumbent Lambie land his goals with
pleasing efficiency, his general play was assured and constructive, allowing
men outside him like Paul Jordaan and Lwazi Mvovo room for some thrilling
bursts of pace.
The Stormers, despite nominally registering two tries to the
Bulls’ one in the defeat, still showed a tendency to be a little too lateral and
blunt in backline play, and battled to get one of their own most renowned
game-breaking flyers, Gio Aplon, into the game.
All those things said, there will be plenty of astute Sharks
fans not wholly prepared to disdainfully write off the Stormers’ chances in the
“Tank” on Saturday.
They will know that atonement for Loftus ought to be a
pretty forceful objective in the collective minds of their opponents --
something that could draw the combatants very, very close together.
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