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    Stormers surge to ‘proper’ second

    2016-04-25 06:00

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The Stormers, in what was a productive Vodacom Super Rugby weekend for the more ambitious South African sides generally, have served further notice that they plan to stay in potential home semi-final terrain in the 2016 competition.

    As things stood upon completion of all Saturday play – bear in mind there was still an appealing, leftover Sunday fixture between the Brumbies and Crusaders – the Newlands-based side had advanced to truly legitimate second overall behind the Chiefs for most points gathered across the 18 teams, even taking aside for a minute the various conference considerations which might help them eventually bank a top-two berth “artificially”.

    Whilst it is still some way up the drag, if they could manage to stay in such a lofty area points-wise come the end of ordinary season activity on July 16, it would ensure they earned either first or second seeding for the knockout phase, meaning that if you win your home quarter-final you are also assured of a home semi.

    The Africa Conference 1 leaders advanced to 28 points by beating the visiting Reds 40-22 (no bonus point) on Saturday, a score-line that was a little flattering as the fast but error-littered game was in the balance for pretty long periods.

    Only the Chiefs, who squeezed out the Hurricanes 28-27 in a New Zealand derby in Wellington, boast more points (33).

    But that’s certainly not to say that the Stormers are guaranteed to be the best SA finishers; far from it.

    Gratifying from a South African perspective is that the Lions end the latest weekend among the current top four teams anywhere on a points basis; the other will be the Crusaders, regardless of whether they win or lose to the Brumbies on Sunday. (No Aussie team can yet find a place at this stage in the leading quartet.)

    Warren Whiteley’s outfit easily saw off the outclassed but never white flag-hoisting Kings 45-10 for a full house of log points in Port Elizabeth, their sixth win from eight starts which saw them move to 27 points and a lead of six over the Sharks, second placed in Africa Conference 2 and given a timely shot in the arm in their own bid for the quarter-finals through their ugly but hard-earned 15-14 triumph over the Highlanders in Dunedin a day earlier.

    The Bulls had a bye, ahead of their Australian tour which begins against the Force on Friday, but remain well in contention for the knockout cut with 23 points from only seven fixtures thus far.

    Although neither is the finished article yet as a really hot “championship” prospect, it seems clear that the Stormers and Lions in particular – aided by the ongoing, largely favourable nature of their rosters – will be difficult to deny quarter-final tickets.

    It was somehow indicative of how far they have come in development terms this season that when he accepted his player-of-the-match award at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, flying Lions wing Ruan Combrinck wasn’t getting too carried away by the margin of victory.

    “We can do so much more … we’re cruising at about 70 percent,” was his sober verdict, only demonstrating the belief, pride and pursuit of high standards that runs deep in the Lions’ dressing room.

    He was simultaneously pointing out that it may well require an improvement of finesse and efficiency in certain areas if they are to see off far tougher opponents on paper next Saturday -- the Hurricanes in Johannesburg -- ahead of another bye for Johan Ackermann’s charges.

    But with flyhalf Elton Jantjies playing some of the best rugby of his life, aided by the sharpness and dynamism of his scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, there is no reason for the Lions to enter that assignment overawed by the New Zealanders, who were tournament runners-up last year.

    Perhaps you shouldn’t be too nit-picky when the Stormers are able to see off 2011 champions the Reds by 18 points, but they were unacceptably erratic at times in the afternoon game, played in bright sunshine after the tempest of wind and rain that had raged in Cape Town a day before.

    They made some dreadful handling errors at times, and coach Robbie Fleck would not have been happy by the defensive showing, either, in the four-tries-to-three triumph.

    Far too many first-time hits were missed, and leaking three tries to each of successive opponents at “Fortress Newlands” – the Sunwolves ahead of this outing – is the kind of statistic that would have been considered sacrilegious to Stormers teams of the era when Jacques Nienaber headed up their defence strategy.

    Still, you do sense a genuine willingness under Fleck’s emerging guard to keep evolving their attacking play, and the hosts did close out the game with some of their most composed and accurate rugby of the entire 80 minutes, especially once an old hand like Schalk Burger had come off the bench to calm the relative craziness.

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

    Friday: Chiefs v Sharks, 09:35; Force v Bulls, 13:05. Saturday: Blues v Rebels, 07:15; Highlanders v Brumbies, 09:35; Reds v Cheetahs, 11:45; Lions v Hurricanes, 17:05; Stormers v Waratahs, 19:15; Jaguares v Kings, 23:40. Byes: Crusaders, Sunwolves.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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    23 February 2017
    • Rebels v Blues, AAMI Park 12:45
    24 February 2017
    • Highlanders v Chiefs, 10:35
    • Reds v Sharks, Suncorp Stadium 13:00
    25 February 2017
    • Sunwolves v Hurricanes, Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium 08:15
    • Crusaders v Brumbies, AMI Stadium 10:35
    • Waratahs v Force, Allianz Stadium 12:45
    • Cheetahs v Lions, Toyota Stadium 17:05
    • Kings v Jaguares, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium 19:15
    • Stormers v Bulls, Cape Town 21:30


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