Stormers take it by the scruff
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The South African conference in Super Rugby may have a way to go yet, but the Stormers now have a truly iron grip on it.
And even if last year’s tournament runners-up, who also remain unbeaten and leaders of the overall 2011 table, may just find that their main threat to going one step further lies abroad this year, they have fired successive, powerful shots across the bows of their leading local adversaries.
An admission: I backed the Bulls when the Stormers visited Loftus, and got it wrong. I also tipped the Sharks to restore winning ways when Schalk Burger’s troops faced their second acid derby test of the season against the Sharks in Durban on Saturday.
Oops, wrong again.
Instead the purposeful, well-drilled, quick-thinking and increasingly steely Cape side not only won 16-6 in a good old arm-wrestle, but they also repeated their Pretoria trick (it was 23-13 then) by denying the opposition even a losing bonus point, which only strengthens their dominance of the conference.
The Stormers hold an eight-point SA lead over the Bulls, who at least had the satisfaction of reminding everyone of their title-holding pedigree by doggedly beating the Hurricanes 26-14 in their first overseas fixture, and nine-point advantage over the Sharks who have slipped to third.
It is a fairly humbling descent by the KwaZulu-Natalians, who had looked so competent in winning all of their first four outings but have now surrendered three on the trot.
There is loads of rugby left in the conference, but with the Stormers having elegantly leapt their toughest domestic hurdles by beating both the Bulls and Sharks away, it is hard to see them being hauled in.
They have the satisfaction of knowing not only that both key rivals must yet visit Newlands, but also that these trailing outfits have to lock horns with each other twice: you would think the only chance of the Stormers being overtaking lies in one of them winning both encounters and also upsetting the apple cart in Cape Town.
Of course the Sharks are “through” with touring, which is some consolation for their current plight, and the Bulls are a morale-boosting one-from-one abroad with three to play.
But Victor Matfield and company have the ominous task next of trying to knock over the formidable Crusaders, well rested after a bye weekend, in Nelson on Saturday.
And it is not as though the prospect of travelling to New Zealand and Australia especially daunts the rampant Stormers, who have a reputation as comfortable travellers.
Their 2011 Antipodean calendar (from mid-May) is also a relatively kind one as things stand, with the Chiefs, Blues, Brumbies and Rebels their obstacles then.
A week ahead of the trip, they play the Crusaders, presently second overall and three points behind them, at Newlands – fuelled by the knowledge that they knocked over those very opponents by 28 points at the same venue last year.
But Allister Coetzee and the rest of his Stormers brains trust are big on the “live in the present” principle and will be focused only for the next few days on the tricky little home game against the Reds, currently best Aussie side and third overall, on Saturday.
The Queenslanders opened their mini-tour of South Africa by staving off the Lions 30-25 in Johannesburg.
It will be an interesting clash of styles, with the Reds one of the more audacious and enterprising sides around – as you would expect when you have the slippery alliance of Will Genia and Quade Cooper pulling the backline strings – and the Stormers famed for their defensive polish and discipline.
That was very much in evidence once again as they earned their first Durban victory in Super Rugby in seven years, scurrying and harrying the slightly jet-lagged Sharks into elementary mistakes with their amazing “momentum prevention” ability.
The game was no spectacle for the purist, a situation hardly aided by bouts of rain, but Burger’s men will not give a hoot about that as they achieved their main objective with a bit of daylight to spare.
You have to take your hat off to their captain: the blond Bok dynamo has a strange knack of sometimes reserving his more stellar performances for the game immediately after he has had a substantial layoff.
Clearly his natural zest for combat quickly eclipses the “cobwebs” factor; he was a livewire for most of the 72 minutes he played, and scored the game’s only try after a decisive break by the classy Jaque Fourie.
There is a certain, understandable trepidation worldwide about the rich World Cup potential of a Dan Carter/Sonny Bill Williams pairing at Nos 10 and 12 for New Zealand later in the year, but South Africans would do well to remember that, as a counter in many respects, the Boks still boast a seriously decent combo nearby at 12 and 13 in Stormers colleagues Jean de Villiers and Fourie respectively.
The crowd at Mr Price Kings Park on Saturday, mostly a little reluctantly, can testify to that.