Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - There have been many ding-dong battles between the two but next Saturday will see their most important confrontation yet in Super Rugby when the Stormers host the Sharks in a semi-final derby at Newlands (17:05 kick-off).
The only certainty will be “house full” signs at the venue ... because a clear favourite is unlikely to exist in the minds of most shrewd critics.
This tantalising fixture, guaranteeing a South African presence in the final after a year’s gap, has been set up courtesy of the Sharks’ massively praiseworthy 30-17 triumph over 2011 champions the Reds in a qualifier in their Brisbane backyard on Saturday.
The Bulls’ campaign ended without the required bang when they were well beaten, in line with majority expectation, by the ever-competitive Crusaders 28-13 at their long-time bogey venue of Christchurch a little earlier.
But if Pierre Spies’s side were error-prone and largely outwitted and outmuscled - ensuring an all-New Zealand other semi with the Crusaders now headed to Hamilton to tackle the Chiefs - the Sharks were the team to quickly restore smiles to neutral enthusiasts in our country.
Keegan Daniel and company can certainly be branded the form team of Super Rugby as they have seen off all of the Bulls, Cheetahs and Reds, often with surprising comfort, in the space of three weeks.
Springbok great Victor Matfield rightly noted in the SuperSport studio that the Sharks, their cause naturally not helped by the long haul to Queensland, “played with their hearts today ... you could really see that”.
And former Bok coach Nick Mallett joined the rightful praise-singing: “The Sharks offload in the tackle better than any other South African side; this was an extraordinary performance by them.”
Despite the Durban-based team’s current head of steam, a big impediment for the humungous clash with the log-topping Stormers will be the gruelling return journey from Australia, something that will play extra havoc with their body clocks ahead of the Newlands fixture.
The Stormers have been resting up through the benefits of a week’s bye into the semi-final, so really should have an edge in freshness even if the more multi-dimensional nature of the Sharks’ game-plan is a likely tick in their favour for the big crunch.
The Sharks do have the satisfaction of knowing that they won 25-20, and more convincingly than the scoreboard suggests, in the most recent ordinary-season meeting at Mr Price Kings Park on May 26; this was one of only two losses by Jean de Villiers’s side in the conference phase of the tournament.
Victory went the Stormers’ way 15-12 in the Newlands tussle back on March 3, however, when there was precious little to pick between the sides and the hosts won courtesy of Peter Grant’s late-show penalty from a difficult angle.
On Saturday the Sharks showed off two particularly encouraging aspects to their current mojo: a first half in which the fluidity and thrust of their attacking play came into favourable focus and a second, by contrast, in which their necessary defensive resolve became the key tool.
There were heroes all across the park for them, with customary big, seasoned names like Beast Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, JP Pietersen and Willem Alberts healthily to the fore, but some less-heralded players like Louis Ludik (some outstanding tackles, including a likely try-stopper on a flying Digby Ioane) and the centre pairing of Timmy Whitehead and Paul Jordaan also standing up to be counted.
The game was a bit of a triumph also for coach John Plumtree’s important tactical decision not to break up the vibrant loose trio of Messrs Daniel, Coetzee and Kankowski, and instead place the returning, versatile Alberts in the second row of the scrum.
Considering the ruggedness yet also commendable mobility of the Sharks pack, the Stormers will be gratified by the near certainty that emerging Bok hard man Eben Etzebeth will return to their own plans for the semi after a spell out with an ankle problem.
They will also monitor with renewed interest the rehabilitation of Duane Vermeulen, a long-term loose forward injury casualty who is finally just about ready and is being whispered as a possibility for 40 minutes or so of exposure against the Sharks.
These teams have not previously met in knockout play in Super Rugby, and neither has yet won the competition since its labelling as the Super 12 in 1996: the Sharks boast three appearances in finals (1996, 2001 and that special Durban heartbreak in 2007 against the Bulls) and the Stormers one (the 2010 defeat to the same Bulls in Soweto).
Both sides find themselves a mouth-watering 160 minutes from maiden tournament glory once more ... who will come up shy again after Saturday’s potentially enthralling 80?
The stakes could hardly be higher.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing