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    Stormers in good space for Chiefs sizzler

    2017-04-01 22:20

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Naas Botha thinks they played well enough, even given the Cheetahs’ limitations, to possibly be considered marginal favourites at Newlands next Saturday.

    Nick Mallett, unusually, is sitting on the fence for the moment: “I’m not saying they will win … but we should see a magnificent spectacle.”

    The SuperSport pundits were referring, of course, to the chances of the Stormers - still the only unbeaten South African side in Super Rugby after handsomely making it five in a row on Saturday - in their tantalising meeting in round seven with the similarly all-wins Chiefs.

    One thing does seem highly likely, after the way Siya Kolisi’s side buried the Cheetahs 53-10 in the latest round, and by eight joyous tries to one: it should not be anything like a repeat of the last encounter between the teams.

    On that occasion last season, the New Zealanders handed the Stormers a rare home humiliation as they won the quarter-final 60-21.

    The Mooloo Men also prevailed (28-19) in the prior, ordinary-season encounter at the same venue in 2015, so Cape Town holds no special fears for them, and also came out on top in Hamilton in 2014 (36-20).

    So you have to wind back to 2013 for a desperately tight (36-34) last Stormers victory over these foes, in the shadow of Table Mountain.

    A week out from the massive meeting – who knows, maybe the revelation of the starting line-ups will bring a change of heart - I confess to probably still leaning just a little the Chiefs’ way if I were staking my house on the fixture, despite their disadvantage of making the long haul across the Indian Ocean.

    Vibrant, innovative and impressively polished though they were in smashing the Cheetahs on Saturday, the Stormers have almost undoubtedly had an easier ride to their five victories on the bounce: Bulls (home), Jaguares (home), Kings (away), Sunwolves (away) and Cheetahs (home).

    The two-time champion Chiefs, by contrast, have had to boss three formidable NZ derbies (Highlanders, Blues, Hurricanes), as well as put away the Rebels and – after a decent fight by the tourists for long periods on Saturday – the Bulls.

    Still, the scene is beautifully set for the Capetonians’ first experience of New Zealand opponents in 2017, and Robbie Fleck’s charges will deserve a far bigger turnout – expect some domestic Chiefs-partial people too? - for it than they got in bamboozling the Free Staters with their multi-pronged, swift-paced formula.

    Even with several supposedly key backline figures, especially, on the injured list, the Stormers keep on bringing through young customers capable of swimming rather than sinking, as it were, commendably quickly.

    Their raw centre combo of Dan du Plessis (22) and EW Viljoen (21) brought directness and enterprise to many of their attacks against the Cheetahs, 23-year-old Robert du Preez continued to produce some delightful touches and general command of his flyhalf berth, whilst the rather more experienced and widely-travelled fullback SP Marais is playing the rugby of his life at 28.

    Throw in the set-piece efficiency and ever-improving offloading skills and mobility amidst their pack, and the wily Chiefs, at the very least, ought to know they’ve been in a mighty scrap next weekend.

    The Stormers face an extended run of formidable fixtures ahead now, but have also, with this bonus-point triumph, opened up a near-ridiculous lead in African Conference 1: they sport 22 points from five matches, followed in very distant second by the Cheetahs on nine points from one extra game.

    But Africa 2 remains far more of an intriguing “group of death”, as evidenced by just how close a high-quality Lions v Sharks was at Emirates Airline Park in the headline local match.

    The Lions won 34-29, only confirming how hard to beat they are at home, but the Sharks gave it everything and could so easily have pinched the spoils but for some debatable refereeing/TMO decisions involving high tackles; the hosts just seemed to get the rub of the green more regularly in that department.

    Warren Whiteley’s team nevertheless moved to 23 points from six matches, a gap of five on the second-placed Jaguares (18) who did not play this weekend and have a fixture in hand.

    The Sharks, if it is any consolation to their fans, are still firmly at the races with their own 18 points from six clashes and should not suddenly fall apart either mentally or strategically; they still seem a side on the up and fresh-faced utility factor Curwin Bosch looks more a full international prospect this year with every passing day.

    That said, there is no rest for the wicked as they will have to be very mindful of matching their Jo’burg intensity and not surrendering any major ground when the well-rested Jaguares visit Kings Park in a few days’ time …

    Next weekend’s fixture (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Hurricanes v Waratahs, 09:35. Saturday: Sunwolves v Bulls, 07:15; Highlanders v Blues, 09:35; Brumbies v Reds, 11:45; Sharks v Jaguares, 15:05; Stormers v Chiefs, 17:15. Sunday: Force v Kings, 08:05. Byes: Lions, Cheetahs, Crusaders, Rebels.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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