Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Four down, two to go. That is the situation the
unbeaten, Super Rugby-topping Stormers find themselves in if they wish to
emulate their runaway start to the 2012 campaign.
They topped the ordinary-season table that year, earning a
coveted home semi-final -- even if it is history now that they botched that
glorious opportunity after doing so many months of sterling set-up work.
A feature of that SA conference trophy-winning season,
nevertheless, was their roaring start which featured six wins on the trot and
went a considerable way to making them unassailable ahead of the playoffs phase.
The class of 2015 is arguably less trumpeted from an overall
squad quality and depth point of view, but it is still a fact that Saturday’s
revealingly comfortable 29-13 home triumph over the dishevelled Sharks powered
the franchise to a four-out-of-four record at the quarter mark of their
pre-Finals Series roster.
Two more victories in the next two games would see them
match that 2012 start, even if the Chiefs at Newlands this Saturday – their
foes presumably smarting from a first defeat, at home to the Highlanders --
shapes up as another pretty formidable hurdle for their fifth challenge.
There would be a fitting synergy, too, if they can complete
a perfect six as the last game in that sequence (provided that the achievement
is still “on” by then) would be exactly the same as three years ago:
Highlanders in Dunedin.
On that occasion the Stormers won 21-6 in their first
overseas tour fixture (it will be the same this time, after the tonic of a bye
weekend), before their winning habit was eventually spoiled for the first time
in a 31-24 reverse to the Crusaders.
Whatever happens in the two above-mentioned games over the
next three weeks for Duane Vermeulen and company, the Capetonians already look
a solid bet for the playoffs, something they failed to achieve last season as
they ended a disappointing 11th with seven victories from the
16-match ordinary-season programme.
Last season two of three teams in the competition to net
eight wins made the cut, so if that turns out to be the magic mark for
qualification again this year, the Stormers may need only a further four
triumphs from 12 remaining games to crack the top-six elite.
Coach Allister Coetzee is too experienced to put the cart
before the horse and allow complacency to filter in to any great degree, but it
is certainly something of a turn-up for the books that his men already command
a gaping 10-point conference lead over the highly-touted (at least before the
tournament began) Sharks.
They are also six points ahead of second-placed domestic
outfit the Bulls, so even a loss to the Chiefs guarantees them ongoing
conference supremacy after round five next weekend.
The particularly gratifying knowledge for the Stormers and
their sturdy fan base is that their team should only get increasingly steely on
paper over the next few weeks.
Fresh injury setbacks are always a threat in the taxing
competition, but they have risen to top spot overall – the Hurricanes are the
only other remaining side with a 100 percent record -- while still some way
short of putting out a best possible start-out XV.
That applies especially to the pack, where they have handed
out physical lessons to both the Bulls and Sharks thus far despite not yet
having had the luxury of fielding their perceived best lock combo of Eben
Etzebeth and Ruan Botha; when one has played the other has always been out of
It might alter for the better this weekend, as the lanky
Botha is tipped to be fully fit again for selection and would beef up the one
set-piece area that continues to look less than wholly efficient – the lineout.
The Stormers have also not yet started their
recovered-from-injury Springbok tighthead Frans Malherbe: it simply hasn’t been
desperately necessary due to the robust showings in all facets of play of newcomer
Vincent Koch, and the Newlands-based side may now boast the best duo for the No
3 shirt in the country.
Throw in the fact that gnarly old combatant Schalk Burger got
through a healthy chunk of second-half action against the Sharks, and looks
hungry to start, and a few pleasant dilemmas could present themselves for the
The Waikato side won the last meeting between the two in
Hamilton last year (36-20) although the Stormers have bragging rights from the
last Newlands clash in 2013 when they edged a thriller 36-34.
The Bulls, on a happier streak of two wins from two after a
poor start, enjoy a sit-out weekend now but will feel another triumph is well
within their grasp when they return to combat against the moderate Force at
Loftus in a fortnight’s time.
What of the Sharks? One win from four attempts has them
quite severely on the back foot, but there are enough seasoned customers on
their books not to allow a climate of panic: they still have six more games on
South African soil (and four in Durban) before they must journey to
That said, winning another derby against the Cheetahs in
Bloemfontein on Saturday looks essential if they are not to slip into
unexpected obscurity ...
Next round of fixtures
(home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Hurricanes v Blues, 08:35; Force v Rebels, 13:00. Saturday:
Crusaders v Lions, 05:30; Highlanders v Waratahs, 08:35; Reds v Brumbies,
10:40; Stormers v Chiefs, 15:00; Cheetahs v Sharks, 17:05. Bye: Bulls.*Follow
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing