Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Crusaders’ likely anxiety to stay in the
Super Rugby playoffs hunt shapes up as their main ally in the task this weekend
of trying to knock the pace-setting Stormers off their lofty perch.
Normally the seven-time winners of the competition would
have a lot more strings to boast to their bow for a home meeting with these
particular South African tourists, whose unbeaten run may even see some staunch
New Zealand pundits do the near-unthinkable and install them as favourites for
a Christchurch encounter (Saturday, 09:35 SA time).
The Stormers come off a stirring, highly-professional
victory over the Highlanders in their opening fixture abroad, amazingly beating
off the effects of an arduous trip to Dunedin – hot on the heels of downing
bitter local rivals the Bulls -- to snuff out the Otago side 21-6.
If anything, Jean de Villiers’s side will be the slightly
more rested outfit going into the next challenge, considering that they ought
to have more effectively shaken off any lingering jetlag whilst the Crusaders
have had to do the long haul from South Africa much more recently themselves.
Admiration for the Stormers’ six-out-of-six record in 2012
came from long-serving New Zealand Herald
scribe Wynne Gray on Monday, as he noted: “They demonstrate a collective will
and defensive trust which is a non-negotiable mantra for top coaches and a
foundation for all quality sides.
“Some team will unlock the Stormers’ defensive chokehold. It
could be their next opponents, the Crusaders, but they have to gather their
battered bodies for the trip home while the Stormers revive their weary limbs
“The Crusaders still have a fair way to go to deliver on
their broad potential.”
Certainly the team under greater pressure on Saturday will
be the home one, now with only a 50% record after six games themselves, nine
points off the log-leading Stormers and just outside the “playoffs zone” in
seventh spot overall.
They have also slipped to as low as fourth in the New
Zealand conference, although they boast a game in hand over the Highlanders and
Hurricanes just above them.
But the ‘Saders may also have a pinch of extra motivation
after being angered by allegations – unsubstantiated in TV evidence terms, it
seems – of eye-gouging in the loss in Pretoria, and decide to take out their
wrath on another set of South African opponents.
With no really standout team in the Australian conference
thus far – Jake White’s Brumbies lead it despite having already lost three
games – the Stormers could just begin to contemplate a novel tour clean sweep if
they can get past the Crusaders, who beat them both in ordinary season and the
semi-final at Newlands last season.
Their remaining dates abroad are across the ditch against
the Reds and Force.
Still, while few
credible reasons can be found to criticise a team that currently just keeps on
winning, the Stormers’ grip on proceedings is not a wholly “iron” one because
of their inability to bag a bonus-point victory yet.
What that means is that the second-placed Chiefs are only
two points adrift as they embark on their safari to South Africa, which begins
against the in-form Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Nor do the Stormers have it completely their own way in the
SA conference, as the Bulls, fresh from knocking over the Crusaders more
convincingly than the 32-30 scoreline suggests at Loftus, trail them by only
four points despite two losses – their four bonus points is a healthy tally,
keeping them in good touch with their southern rivals.
If the Stormers were to lose in Christchurch, the Bulls
would later enter their Coca-Cola Park derby against the struggling Lions – Josh
Strauss and company minus a victory in five matches – knowing that a convincing
win could see them suddenly grab the conference lead.
Meanwhile the erratic Sharks must regroup from their reverse
to the Hurricanes to try to end their Antipodean mission on a winning note
against the Blues, so unexpectedly languishing in the nether regions of the
overall table with the Lions.
If the men from Durban fail to win in Auckland on Friday –
Keegan Daniel’s troops are presently a tricky team to “call” with any
confidence – there is the danger of their slumping to fourth in the South
African table as they are only a point ahead of the Cheetahs.
fixtures (home teams first):
Friday: Blues v Sharks (09:35 SA time), Force v Waratahs
(13:40). Saturday: Crusaders v Stormers (09:35), Brumbies v Rebels (11:40),
Cheetahs v Chiefs (17:05), Lions v Bulls (19:10). Byes: Highlanders,
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