Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The unheralded Lions must be quietly fancying their chances of being top of the South African pile from three rounds of Super Rugby activity after the completion of next weekend’s fixtures.
They are currently unbeaten, having seen off the Cheetahs narrowly in Bloemfontein and then really made people sit up and take notice by roasting a wretched Stormers team 34-10 in Johannesburg on Saturday night.
That places them just one point behind the Sharks, who also sport a two from two record but banked a four-try bonus point against the Bulls last weekend to enable them to have their noses in front in the conference.
The Durban-based outfit have a bye next weekend, and under new tournament rules no longer get four freebie points for that, so if the Marnitz Boshoff-powered Lions can prosper in the Highveld derby at Loftus next Saturday, what would have been considered virtually unthinkable in pre-season could become reality and the Lions occupy best real estate domestically.
It should be a cracking clash with the Bulls, because not only will the Lions’ admirable team ethic be on display once more, but the home crew will be under intense pressure to earn a first victory in three fixtures – another loss and the men from Pretoria would already be well nigh out of the running for a fourth Super Rugby title.
As big a talking point on Sunday as the Lions’ ongoing heroism with their superstar-shy squad, is the atrocious, clueless start made at Ellis Park by the Stormers, many bookies’ fancy upfront to be second-best South African franchise to the Sharks this season.
That is still possible at this infant stage, of course ... certainly the unusually disdainful words used by Stormers skipper Jean de Villiers immediately afterwards to describe his charges’ lacklustre, fumbling and impotent effort should at least mean they will come out smoking in their first home match against the Hurricanes at Newlands on Friday night.
But emerging from the tunnel breathing fire is one thing, having the variety and imagination in strategic terms to start winning games regularly is another -- and there the Stormers and their long-entrenched coaching staff are a group under increasingly strong scrutiny.
“Very, very predictable,” was commentator and former World Cup-winning flyhalf Joel Stransky’s assessment of their attacking play, and he would only have inspired an avalanche of agreeing nods.
It is an area where the Stormers, usually competitive these days in the Super Rugby race but also never quite able to go all the way, are making no progress at all and perhaps even going backwards as their obsession with defence – mind you, not so shipshape itself in the Big Smoke – comes back to bite them on the collective bum.
They have become a more and more joyless, blunt team to watch and if they are not careful, it will soon be reflected in declining home gates as even their admirably loyal support base begins to vote with its feet.
The visitors had more than enough territory and possession at times to be able to come back from their nightmare, sleepy start, but the more they bashed away – and sometimes the good old lineout drive seems their only attempt at tryline-challenging “flair” – the more painful their bankruptcy of initiative and continuity became.
They were always going to be just a little vulnerable going to the Highveld for their first game, and against opponents who had already warmed their engines nicely in Bloemfontein, while also fielding several rookies through necessity because of injury.
But the fact that several experienced Springboks in the Stormers’ ranks effectively didn’t pitch up against the cohesive Lions – players like Gio Aplon and Duane Vermeulen were strangely off-colour – would only have caused virus-like jitters among less senior customers.
Perhaps their best weapon for the Hurricanes game, as suggested earlier, will be the “response” factor and the ability to convince themselves that this was simply a first-match shocker, although problems appear to run rather deeper than that.
For one thing, the Stormers may well benefit from Peter Grant’s return from Japan shortly; he is a flyhalf not afraid to attack the advantage line, which would be a good start in their bid to restore some badly-needed offensive mojo.
Albeit that they produced not much more than a three-star performance on another steamy early-season day in Durban, the Sharks seldom looked like losing to the Hurricanes and will enter their “off” week feeling pretty good about life – they return to action in a fortnight against the Lions at Kings Park.
It could be an unlikely top-of-conference clash by then ...
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all starts SA times):
Friday: Blues v Crusaders, 08:35; Rebels v Cheetahs, 10:40; Stormers v Hurricanes, 19:10. Saturday: Chiefs v Highlanders, 08:35; Waratahs v Reds, 10:40; Force v Brumbies, 13:00; Bulls v Lions, 17:05. Bye: Sharks.
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