Vodacom Super Rugby
Stormers favourites for top?
Cape Town - Another Saturday, another Stormers win without a bonus point.
For the amazing 13th time in Super Rugby this season, the SA conference leaders (and now also confirmed winners again) emerged from a match with the “basic” four-pointer rather than with the cherry-on-cake additional point for scoring four tries.
Once again the Stormers scored low for entertainment value - yes, that has become a habit despite the indignation of some of their honchos when you suggest it - but in the latest, attrition-based 13-6 triumph over the Cheetahs in a miserable Bloemfontein there were at least some strong mitigating circumstances.
With the Cheetahs also putting their normal, free-running plans on hold in acknowledgement of the chilly and wet conditions and surprising with their level of defensive structure and resolve (not normally their best suit) a high-scoring feast always seemed unlikely.
And give the visitors their tactical due: as the clock wound down, and adding significantly to their solitary try just not a feasible option, they realised the importance of simply holding off the tenacious hosts in a tense finish.
Even as some of the television commentators strangely kept banging on about the bonus point with fewer than 10 minutes left, Jean de Villiers and company stayed mindful of the bigger-picture requirements.
For the fact remains that the Stormers arguably hold inside lane for the precious top-placed finish on the overall table.
Provided that mid-winter Newlands is not a mudbath next Saturday (15:00 kick-off), there must be every chance that the home side, currently trailing the log-leading Chiefs by one point, will finally and with potentially exquisite timing snare a five-pointer against the humdrum Melbourne Rebels.
A day earlier, the Stormers camp will all be quietly rooting for the Hurricanes (Friday 09:35 SA time), still not mathematically out of the playoffs picture themselves, to either beat the visiting Chiefs in a New Zealand derby at the Cake Tin or at the very least prevent them from winning with four tries.
Either scenario seems a fair enough prospect, doesn’t it?
After all, even in the home fixture against the ‘Canes in late April, the Chiefs could not land the bonus point; they registered three tries despite prevailing by a comfortable 33-14.
And in the corresponding clash at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium last season, the Hurricanes will be buoyed by the knowledge that they were the winners on that occasion 29-26.
At the very least, it is now desperately unlikely that the Stormers will fall out of the top two, as a losing bonus point against the Rebels, whom they beat 40-3 away last year, is enough to secure second and a home semi-final.
Whatever the remaining permutations, there is probably a fair case for arguing that, if the going is suitably firm, the Stormers do have an obligation to treat their supporters to some overdue sparkle next weekend.
There were alarming occasions at Free State Stadium, in spells where the rain relented and they had some good try-scoring prospects in the Cheetahs’ quarter, where moves were butchered either by lack of composure, poor passing rhythm or wrong options.
A niggling feeling will persist among many Super Rugby neutrals, you can be certain, that the Stormers’ admittedly exemplary focus on defence could yet come to bite them against a quality offensive outfit like the Crusaders or Chiefs.
The argument is roughly this: any side is capable of quickly going a try or two down; do the Stormers really have the capability, given their current mindset, to come from behind under such circumstances?
So their showing some ball-in-hand lustre against the Rebels, weather permitting, would be a timely tonic immediately prior to a semi.
The Stormers also need to address two successive weeks of angst at scrum-time, although the expected return of strong-man No 4 Eben Etzebeth to the second row ought to go at least some way to rectifying matters.
Meanwhile the fifth-placed Bulls and domestic rivals the Sharks, one spot below them, will be heartened by the knowledge that they will know exactly what they have to do themselves next Saturday - at home to the Lions and Cheetahs respectively - to earn spots in the finals series.
It is possible both will require “maximum” wins but it also has to be kept in mind that if there are some upset results slightly earlier in the round, like the Reds losing at home to the Waratahs, then both may be safe for the playoffs already.
The likeliest scenario remains that both SA teams will have to travel overseas for qualifying games ahead of the semis, although one of them might yet earn a home fixture - in the very, very improbable event that the Crusaders slip below fourth place by losing in Christchurch to the Western Force.
Next weekend’s last-round programme (home teams first):
Hurricanes v ChiefsSaturday:
Brumbies v Blues, Crusaders v Force, Reds v Waratahs, Stormers v Rebels, Sharks v Cheetahs, Bulls v Lions*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing