Stormers enter critical phase
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Under the old Super 14 dispensation, last season’s runners-up the Stormers would be contemplating a run-in period toward knockout activity ... and quite probably all back on South African soil by now.
But the maiden season of Vodacom Super Rugby, so much more of a drawn-out affair, has been less kind to them in scheduling terms and as a result they still have a mountain to climb in terms of challenging fixtures before they can dream of the newly-structured “finals series”.
Their allocation of bye weekends has been unfavourable, given that they received a pretty meaningless one on weekend No 1 of the competition and have now exhausted both breather opportunities.
But just as detrimentally, you might argue, they are one of the last-departing South African conference teams (the down-and-out Lions, just for the record, are the other) for their Antipodean tour this year.
How much of a drawback that will be remains to be seen, but some rather more weary Stormers men than usual, probably, will board a long-haul aircraft in early May – when the New Zealand weather, especially, may well be turning a tad more wintry – for their four-match obligation abroad featuring the Chiefs, Blues, Brumbies and Rebels in that order.
The Aussie encounters appear just a little kinder on paper, which means there is a case for saying the next four weeks (Sharks on Saturday and then Crusaders also at home, followed by the tough New Zealand leg of the tour) amount to a really crunch period for Allister Coetzee’s charges.
In a nutshell, they will not want to experience a speed-wobble in that period at the top of the SA conference, where the Sharks will shoot right back to favourites to end up heading it anyway if they win on Saturday – unlike the Stormers, the Durbanites have no further changes of time zones to consider until the possibility of doing so in late June for “finals” duties.
The last thing the Stormers would want is for their Australian games at the back end of the tour to suddenly become true do-or-die affairs because they have surrendered two or three of the stiff encounters ahead of them – under those circumstances they would also be much more reluctant to consider resting certain staple players who may well urgently require some “off” time by then.
Coetzee agrees that the derby is a potential “eight-point swing” affair in log terms.
“Yes, it could have a massive (effect) in terms of our conference,” he told Sport24 this week. “They’re only three points behind us so it’s easy to work out why.”
He also concurred that the “in-house” Sharks game was more important than the looming Crusaders one in many ways, given that the primary ordinary-season objective is to win the SA conference, with all the obvious advantages that entails.
“That’s correct, really. First prize is to seal the local conference. Besides, the Sharks game also ties in our stated philosophy here, where we focus strictly on the next game only, each time. Right now the Crusaders is a totally different challenge, requiring thought only later.
“The nature of this competition is such that you have no real time to ease off, and must plan (on that basis).”
Coetzee assured that the players would be “in a good space” for the tour, despite it coming so late on the regular programme for them.
“It’ll be about excitement far more than trepidation, definitely. We realised when we looked at the programme in pre-season that the tour, coming when it does, would require a massive squad effort and special (commitment).”
Certainly the Stormers’ reputation for being comfortable, happy tourists may be tested to the full once more, whatever has happened in the Cape Town-based fortnight or so preceding it ...