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
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
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
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.
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