Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The chances have greatly increased that the Stormers will need to defy statistical history to win the 2015 overall Super Rugby crown from here.
Signs point all too strongly to their being elbowed into a third-placed finish after ordinary season, even though they are already safely installed as SA conference champions after the engrossing, full-blooded 19-19 Newlands result (inconvenient first draw competition-wide this year) against the now-eliminated Lions.
To still get a highly desirable home semi-final, three results will need to work in their favour in next weekend’s last round ahead of the six-team playoffs.
Allister Coetzee’s charges, apart from having to beat the Sharks themselves in Durban on Saturday (19:10 kick-off), will have needed two earlier matches on the day to have gone the way of the away teams to avoid South Africa being the only one of the participating countries for a second year running not to stage a semi.
They seek a Crusaders victory over the Brumbies in their trip to Canberra, plus a Reds win in the Australian derby against the Waratahs in Sydney.
Neither outcome can be completely ruled out, but a considerably better bet is that at least one of the ‘Tahs or Brumbies will have done the business, thus leaving the Stormers automatic third-placed tenants regardless of how their Durban date goes.
The permutations leave coach Coetzee with a real selection quandary for the Kings Park encounter, as it seems to make little sense -- especially considering the epic, physically draining stalemate with the Lions – to field a full-strength XV against the old coastal adversary if the game has assumed academic proportions for the Stormers just a few hours before the teams run out.
But if there is still the sniff of that coveted home semi, by contrast, he would suddenly require his charges to be very much in A-game mode to see off a Sharks combo probably wishing only to end a forgettable campaign on a high note as classic party-spoilers.
As things stand, some dark clouds can be said to be gathering over the Stormers’ quest for a maiden Super Rugby title, not least because there is an anxious wait over the next few days to determine the severity of the neck problem that belatedly ruled rugged captain and Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen out of the Lions humdinger.
They also have to establish just how quickly their ace place-kicker Demetri Catrakilis will be considered ready for a return to the flyhalf jersey after he was pole-axed while trying to stop a typically rampaging Lions flanker Jaco Kriel on Saturday.
At least as far as the place-kicking chore is concerned, main No 10 back-up Kurt Coleman still has an untimely case of the yips, based on costly evidence from his emergency infusion against the never-say-die Jo’burgers.
Full complement of players at their disposal from here or not, it looks increasingly as though the Capetonians will now have to face an extra game in the shape of a home “quarter-final” against an Australasian side - dangerous task, whoever it may be against -- and then travel abroad once more for a semi.
No team ending third overall under the conference system, since its inception in 2011, has yet managed to land the title from that unfavourable playoffs ranking.
There is also the risk, with the Lions and Bulls both having fallen irreversibly from contention in the latest round, that South Africa will enter this year’s finals series with its least credible representation yet.
Although the Stormers are at least guaranteed a lone SA presence up front, they may well enter the playoffs with an even less deserved third place than when the Sharks were the only representatives from our shores (and eventual beaten semi-finalists) last year.
Then, the Sharks could say that they merited that position, as they did end ordinary season also with the third most points overall.
At present the Stormers are actually as low as sixth overall, in pure points terms, even if tournament rules stipulate that they have to end no lower than third as conference winners.
South Africa had three playoffs presences in 2012, and two teams in each of 2011 and 2013, so there is a worrying trend developing of the collective SA charge being a more ineffectual one than that of either New Zealand (no surprise) or Australia.
On the brighter side, the Stormers-Lions match was a wonderful advertisement for some of rugby’s most glittering qualities, and the side advancing to the playoffs can boast that they didn’t lose it.
The passage to a possible final is probably going to turn out tougher than desired, but I wouldn’t try telling unrelenting Stormers warriors like Schalk Burger or Eben Etzebeth to their faces that they are no-hopers from here ...
Next weekend’s matches (home teams first, all kickoffs SA time):
Friday, June 12
Blues v Highlanders - 09:35
Rebels v Force - 11:40
Saturday, June 13
Brumbies v Crusaders - 07:30
Chiefs v Hurricanes - 09:35
Waratahs v Reds - 11:40
Bulls v Cheetahs - 17:05
Sharks v Stormers - 19:10
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