Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Defeated in a Super Rugby match against the Sharks they always looked vulnerable to surrendering under present circumstances, the Stormers nevertheless arguably remain favourites to top the South African conference after the completion of ordinary season.
Finding the correct degree of focus at Mr Price Kings Park on Saturday must have been a difficult task at this advanced stage of the competition, because if the Durban match was “massive”, the thought would have simultaneously preyed on their minds that the game against nearest rivals the Bulls at sold-out Loftus next weekend (Saturday, 19:10) is even more so.
Inescapably, the Capetonian side, several of whom have been over-played anyway for varying reasons, would have been conscious of the need to keep some gas in the tank for the next away derby.
By fighting back to earn a losing bonus point in the 25-20 reverse in the Shark Tank - an outcome that keeps the home side still very much in conference-topping contention themselves - Jean de Villiers and company did restore a two-point lead over the Bulls, who also tasted defeat in the latest round.
The Stormers will know that triumph at Loftus makes them near-overwhelming favourites to win the conference ... perhaps in at least second spot overall which would also bank a home semi-final (as occurred for them last year).
Even another loss in Pretoria, provided that it is a close affair and that they sneak another bonus point for finishing within seven points on the board, would potentially leave them only one point adrift of the Bulls if they were, indeed, leapfrogged on the ladder next weekend.
That would still constitute a very reasonable position because a glance at the fixture list shows that, of the two traditional north-south rivals, it is the Bulls who have the toughest remaining “banana peel” game on paper: away to the in-form Sharks on Friday, July 6.
As things stand the Bulls obviously remain the greater threat to the Stormers winning the conference, so a home win in that particular derby might well suit Allister Coetzee’s charges nicely.
Although the Cheetahs away is a fixture that could severely stretch the Stormers, it is true, they did play them in Bloemfontein last season at a similarly advanced stage of the campaign and came away with a 44-34 win.
Both remaining Newlands obligations look like ones where the Stormers will have to play particularly badly to stumble - the lamentable Lions and iffy Australian outfit the Melbourne Rebels.
So conference-topping fate may be attractively in their own hands when Super Rugby resumes after the three-week Test window.
On that topic, the Stormers may also hit the “final straight” of ordinary season more refreshed than their other two main domestic challengers, because it looks as though they will offer up fewer players to the three-Test series against England and thus be able to do some timely resting and off-field conditioning.
They will also welcome back with great glee several from their swollen list of injured loose forwards.
Minus the services of all of Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi, Nick Koster and Nizaam Carr in Durban, they were well and truly thumped in this department by the more urgent, uncompromising and also way more creative Willem Alberts, Keegan Daniel and that serious revelation on the open side, Marcell Coetzee.
Of course it is easier to boss this area when front five supremacy has also been firmly established – this was particularly the case in the set scrums where the Sharks applied remorseless pressure and left the impression that when push really comes to shove, this facet of play remains a bit of an Achilles’ heel for the Cape outfit.
In broad terms, the Stormers would be doing themselves a disservice if they didn’t confess that they were beaten much more convincingly than the scoreboard suggests.
Certainly at 25-6 down with much of the second half left, a real hiding seemed right on the cards, and the hitherto highly impressive Sharks going off the boil to an extent did contribute to the Stormers’ partial comeback.
People who believe that the Stormers are a tad too sterile as an attacking force probably only had their views reinforced on the day.
Both tries by the visitors had elements of good fortune attached to them, although you could also argue that Deon Fourie was desperately unlucky to lose the ball over the line once, and Lwazi Mvovo may have touched the whitewash en route to his try for the Sharks.
That said, the mental growth of the Stormers in the past two years or so remained clearly evident: had this been their team of old, 19 points adrift and being outmuscled and outwitted, a far nastier pasting might well have occurred.
The hull has a couple of holes in it; it has not sunk ...Remaining games for the three SA conference challengers:
Stormers (played 12, 50 points): Bulls (a), Lions (h), Cheetahs (a), Rebels (h).
Bulls (played 12, 48 points): Stormers (h), Cheetahs (h), Sharks (a), Lions (h).
Sharks (played 13, 45 points): Lions (a), bye, Bulls (h), Cheetahs (h).*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing