Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The depleted Stormers’ tenacious victory against the odds over the Bulls at Loftus on Saturday leaves them in with a tantalising chance of banking a third successive home semi-final in Super Rugby.GALLERY: Best pictures from the past weekend
It is the sort of possibility that must be keeping the bean-counters at Newlands pretty happy, especially because there is also still a better than outside chance of the side finishing top overall and thus being on course also for a home showpiece game on August 4.
The Stormers, yet to win the title, beat the Waratahs at home in the 2010 semi-final 25-6 and then crashed rather violently to the Crusaders in 2011, 29-10.
But even if they remain notably try-shy this year - with 22 at an average of 1.69 per game only the 14th-placed Lions, extraordinarily, are as poor at crossing the chalk - their defence remains a device of near-perfection and clearly a remarkable level of spirit runs through the entire squad, too.
Several factors conspire conveniently, into the bargain, to suggest that supremacy on the overall table after ordinary season (they are four points off the log-leading Chiefs) can yet be achieved, even if winning the SA conference and ending second for a home semi anyway may seem the rosier scenario at this point.
For one thing, surrendering no more than a trio of players to the national cause - something that has caused much early public indignation at Bok coach Heyneke Meyer - means not only that the bulk of Allister Coetzee’s charges will get a manna-from-heaven three weeks of good rest and refreshment, but also that snubbed players like Gio Aplon, Siya Kolisi, Peter Grant and Juan de Jongh will be out to prove the apparent folly of this when Super Rugby resumes over the weekend starting June 29.
There is also the fact that several Stormers “hardebaarde” are due back in action after the hiatus, and infusing hungry combatants like Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen and perhaps Andries Bekker straight into the brew will only enhance their charge toward the finish line.
In a nutshell, there appears a good likelihood that if the Stormers beat all of the Lions (home), Cheetahs (away) and Rebels (home), they will be in with a strong shout at top spot overall, whilst two from three ought to secure both the SA conference and that home semi.
It is likely that the Capetonians will start as fairly clear favourites to prevail in all three, frankly.
The Chiefs’ undoubtedly impressive mastery on the collective table goes on for the time being, although their run-in looks rather more challenging: New Zealand derbies against three other teams all still eyeing the playoffs - the Highlanders (away), Crusaders (home) and Hurricanes (away).
It is extremely difficult to retain momentum indefinitely in Super Rugby - the Bulls have just learnt that ruefully after three losses on the trot - so just maybe the Chiefs are due for a fall-off in form at a most inconvenient time?
Getting rather more nerve-jangling in an all-SA context is the duel now between the Bulls and Sharks for what may only be one other playoff spot for teams from our country - a couple of weeks ago the prospect of all three local “giant” franchises making the cut looked much better than now.
The gradually slipping Bulls currently lie fifth overall, four points clear of the Sharks in seventh. They have an extra game to play, although it needs to be kept in mind that that also means the Sharks have a bye weekend yet to come, meaning an automatic four points to their credit.
A decisive match, therefore, may well be the meeting between these very foes at Mr Price Kings Park on Friday July 6 - it could turn into a virtual eliminator, rather like the clash right at the end of last year’s ordinary season at Loftus when the Sharks won 26-23 to squeeze out the Bulls and steal sixth place themselves.
Did the Sharks bungle things strategically in their zero-log-points disaster against the lowly, much-maligned Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday?
In their understandably keen quest to push for a fourth try, which might at least have ensured them two losing bonus points in the 38-28 reverse, they simultaneously spurned opportunities to take penalty kicks for the posts and get within seven points of the Lions by that route.
Had they done so, there would still have been enough time to strike for a fourth try anyway and potentially share the spoils 38-38: under those circumstances they might have emerged with a healthy enough three points from the game (two for the draw).
The fact that they drew a heartbreaking blank after 80 minutes meant that they tumbled out of the top sixth, into seventh and level on points with the Hurricanes one slot ahead of them - so just one point via the route of a penalty in the final quarter would have been enough to keep them in the morale-boosting playoff zone.
Certainly for the Sharks, the derby against the Bulls amounts especially to “must win” now ... and a big challenge for John Plumtree will be to ensure that his troops are not fatally rusty for it; their break period amounts to four weeks rather than most teams’ three. Remaining games for the three playoff-challenging SA sides:Stormers (played 13, 54 points):
Lions (h), Cheetahs (a), Rebels (h)Bulls (played 13, 49 points):
Cheetahs (h), Sharks (a), Lions (h)Sharks (played 14, 45 points):
Bye, Bulls (h), Cheetahs (h)*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing