Cape Town - The Stormers’ narrow win over the Bulls in a tense and error-ridden Super Rugby derby at the weekend meant they completed a clean sweep against their arch rivals and also means they remain unbeaten against South African teams this season.
Although they are only one point ahead of the Bulls on the local conference log thanks to the bonus point the Bulls picked up at Newlands for losing by less than seven, it was a massive step for the Stormers towards annexing their third conference title, reports the supersport.com website.
Although the Bulls derby was close and they were also fortunate to beat the Lions in Johannesburg before their tour, the Cape side, who were written off by most critics as conference contenders before the season started, has so far demonstrated its superiority over the other local teams.
They have yet to play the Cheetahs this year, but they’ve beaten the Sharks (home), Lions (away) and the Bulls both home and away.
They’ve also completed a satisfactory tour where they won two out of their four games, and now face a finish to the season that includes four more games at Newlands.
With the Bulls and Sharks both set to tour still, it could well be the Lions, who scored fifth consecutive win this past weekend, who could push them most for their right to advance directly into the play-offs in June.
However, the Lions still have to visit Newlands, where they don’t boast a great record in Super Rugby, and Loftus this coming weekend.
They will be up against it in both those games, and as Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said on Saturday night, a derby win "is almost like banking eight log points".
It was like that for the Stormers against their current biggest challengers at Newlands, and this coming weekend, when the Stormers play their second last away game in Bloemfontein, the other teams will be hoping for a Cheetahs win.
After that comes four consecutive home games for the Stormers – Brumbies, Lions, Cheetahs and Rebels – and they should be favoured to win all of them.
So while it may be presumptuous for the Stormers to think they have the conference wrapped, for in truth there is still a long way to go, it probably is time for Duane Vermeulen’s men to become a bit more international in outlook in the hope that they can finish second and thus guarantee an automatic home semi-final.
Although they currently have fewer log points than three teams, with two Kiwi teams, the Hurricanes and Chiefs being eight and seven ahead of them respectively, one of the New Zealand teams will be cancelled out so that the next best team can be installed in second spot.
In that race the Stormers are well placed as they are only one point behind the second placed Brumbies, who still have to come to South Africa.
It’s going to be tight though, as the Highlanders and Waratahs, two and three points behind the Stormers respectively, both have a game in hand.
And of course the race for second spot still also features the Bulls, who will get to play some of the other overseas contenders on their upcoming tour and can influence the outcome.
Pierre Spies’ team were mightily unlucky not to break what for them is starting to become a Newlands drought, and it could probably be said that seldom have the Stormers played so poorly and yet still managed to beat the Bulls.
The Stormers are certainly going to have to improve their attacking game, particularly when it pertains to structured attack, if they want to go all the way in the competition, and on Saturday night they experienced a rare off-night in the line-outs.
The Bulls had enough territory and possession in the second half to win the game, and the Stormers also came a poor second in fielding the kicks.
Although the Stormers’ defence was mostly good, and there was plenty of guts, tenacity and passion in the home effort, the Bulls also let themselves down on occasion by just making the wrong decisions.
The Stormers could have been out of sight by half-time, however, had they made better use of their possession.
They were over the line once off a set-move but a pass was ruled forward, and there was another occasion when Spies put in a try-saving tackle.
The Stormers were also pressing when the Bulls scored their against the run of play try, and had they scored points then, the game might never have been close.
But the Bulls try re-energised the visitors and appeared to sap some of the energy from a Stormers team that has just returned from a tough tour, and after that the Stormers were abjectly poor in just about everything they did.
They are going to have to buck themselves up before travelling to Bloemfontein this weekend and even more so before they host the Brumbies two weeks hence.
The Australian conference leaders looked flat when they lost to the Rebels in the previous game but against the Highlanders this past weekend they looked to be heading back to form, and will be strengthened by the return of players such as Matt Toomua before they head to South Africa.
First though they face a tough home derby against the Waratahs, who comprehensively outplayed them in the first round game, so they could well come to Cape Town behind the Stormers on the overall log.
The Crusaders are back in the mix – just – courtesy of their good win over the Blues at the weekend, but the real movers during the 11th weekend of competition were the Hurricanes, who picked up a bonus point win over the Reds in Brisbane on Sunday to nail down top spot on the log with a game in hand on all the other contenders for pole position.
The Lions are also in contention on all fronts, and although they made heavy weather of it and kept letting the outplayed Toyota Cheetahs back into it, there were several impressive features about their win in Johannesburg.
On this past weekend’s evidence though they are going to have to improve if they hope to maintain their challenge with a win over the Bulls in what is now shaping as a massive Loftus derby for both teams.
The Sharks have meanwhile arrived in New Zealand and go into what is effectively their last chance saloon when they face the Highlanders in Dunedin on Workers Day.
A defeat there will effectively end any hopes for the Sharks as it will leave them too far behind the Stormers and Bulls on the conference log.