Vodacom Super Rugby
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Stormers’ top-spot hopes soar
Cape Town – All sorts of perils potentially still lurk, but suddenly the Stormers are in with a very real chance of topping the Super Rugby overall table when ordinary-season activity ends in a fortnight.
It is a coveted place to be because of the likely “easier” route to the final it offers, and also the later carrot of home status in the big showpiece – something they just failed to achieve last season, when the Bulls in a Highveld final proved a bridge too far.
But the bean counters at Newlands will be very quietly pinning their hopes anew now on securing the grand spectacle this time.
Todd Blackadder, the Crusaders coach, was so right in suggesting, after his charges pipped the Stormers at the venue last month, that “as usual” everything would come down to the very last day of the league season.
For truth be told, the Stormers could even still be knocked off top perch in their own conference, never mind harbour crazily premature dreams of running out to a full house in Cape Town on July 9.
If that calamity is to occur, however, they are going to have to be beaten in both of their last two games, with either of the Bulls or Sharks (it can’t be both, as these two must yet play each other again) also prevailing in their closing duo of fixtures.
Certainly things will start to get a bit tense for Schalk Burger’s men if, returning from their generally very productive Australasian tour, they are knocked over by the defending champions in the already sold-out derby at Newlands on Saturday.
But they will also be fortified, as they undertake the passage home, by a dream series of results this weekend, obviously including their own full-house thumping of the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday.
As was the case last weekend, the latest round of matches turned out amazingly favourably for the three-strong South African challengers for the playoffs.
With the Bulls beating the Waratahs under lights on Friday and the Sharks overcoming some rank first-half lethargy and impotence to see off the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein a day later, SA teams currently occupy three of the (qualifying) top six positions.
The Stormers are second on 57 points, now just one behind the Reds, who were humbled at home by the Brumbies and even frittered away a losing bonus point with the last kick of the match by Matt Giteau that took the Canberra side beyond a seven-point margin of victory.
Third, two points shy of the Stormers, lie the Blues, who similarly choked in a New Zealand derby against the Chiefs and have now lost three times in succession. Behind the fourth-placed Crusaders (53 points) come the Sharks (51) and Bulls (49).
So if you use the principle of “momentum” – and even that can shift with the click of the fingers, mind – the Stormers may well be enjoying installation by some neutrals at this point as favourites to finish on top.
The out-of-touch Blues have a seriously tough date away to the Crusaders next weekend, while the Reds, no doubt reeling after an unusually energetic Brumbies combo looted their palace, have to go across Australia for another all-Aussie conference tussle with the pretty in-form, often well-supported Force.
There is no question that the Stormers will also be stretched to the limit by their bitter enemies to the South African north, but at least they are the only one of the top three teams overall on a relative roll at present.
Following the first-game loss to the Chiefs, when it seemed the Capetonians were just beginning to slip dangerously out of contention for a top-two finish, the Stormers have won all of their three remaining tour games to sail right back into pole-position contention.
Meanwhile, even with their own playoffs hopes staying quite strongly alive thanks to this weekend’s respective victories, smart money suggests the Sharks and Bulls may yet be fighting for one South African berth between them in the finals series – especially given their tussle with each other at Loftus on June 18, which is probably of benefit to teams like the Waratahs and Highlanders on their tails.
Next weekend’s programme (home teams first):
Friday: Chiefs v Hurricanes, Brumbies v Rebels. Saturday: Crusaders v Blues, Waratahs v Highlanders, Force v Reds, Lions v Sharks, Stormers v Bulls.