Stormers’ fierce scrap for semi

    2015-05-26 22:21

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – It’s virtually certain the runaway Hurricanes will claim “gold” at the end of Super Rugby’s ordinary season ... the battle for important “silver” looks hugely more exciting over the remaining three weekends.

    That’s also where South African interest comes in, with the Stormers looking best shout from the domestic conference to grab the second home semi-final berth – even as they show a stubborn, mystifying lack of urgency over the accumulation of bonus points which could yet tilt the deal.

    As much as anything, they are being a bit naive in historical terms if they continue to believe that just winning the conference, even if it means ending unfavourable third overall, gives them a rosy chance of advancing to the elusive title.

    They would be defying the record books if they lift the overall silverware from that position; only sides finishing ordinary season first or second have gone on to achieve that.

     Here’s a quick reminder of how the title has been decided, since the advent of the three-group system in 2011:

    First year: Reds champions, after topping ordinary-season table. Fate of third-placed team: Crusaders won two KO matches, but lost final.

    2012: Chiefs champions, after ending second to Stormers in ordinary season. Fate of third-placed team: Reds knocked out in first KO round.

    2013: Chiefs champions, after topping ordinary-season table. Fate of third-placed team: Brumbies won two KO matches, but lost final.

    2014: Waratahs champions, after topping ordinary-season table. Fate of third-placed team: Sharks won first KO fixture, but beaten semi-finalists.

    It must not be forgotten that both the Bulls (particularly) and Lions retain fighting chances of winning the SA conference, but with most experts acknowledging that the Stormers look healthiest prospects with three rounds to go, let’s examine their chances of completing the task in coveted second place overall – thus handily bypassing a knockout round into a guaranteed home semi.

    Given that the next best two New Zealand sides to the Hurricanes dubiously can’t end in second or third by tournament stipulation, the Stormers appear to be engaged in a titanic battle with Australians the Waratahs and Brumbies for that runner-up spot to the ‘Canes.

    Sheer logic suggests the ‘Tahs, the recently inconsistent but still strongly-staffed defending champions, are a whisker ahead in this likely three-way race: they are three points better off (41 from 13 games) than the other two. The Stormers and Brumbies have 38 apiece, also from 13.

    Simply put, if the Waratahs keep winning over the next three weekends, they really ought to shut the others out and safely bank that Sydney semi – it is a fair old incentive to have.

    Making that task reasonably tricky, however, is the fact not only that they have a mere one home game remaining (last round, against the Reds) but that the two away fixtures are on a South African mini-tour.

    But they also sidestep the traditional three “biggest” SA franchises on the venture and, with the greatest of respect to the Lions (the opposition in a pivotal Johannesburg game for both sides this Saturday night) and Cheetahs, the Aussie outfit will not feel overawed either at Emirates Airline Park or the Free State Stadium and should believe they can prevail in both if they play to Wallaby-laden potential.

    As for the Stormers, bracing themselves for Newlands games against the Cheetahs and Lions and then a dangerous last-day duel with the nothing-to-lose Sharks in Durban, they will have decidedly mixed emotions over Johan Ackermann’s charges within the next fortnight or so.

    First up, they will probably be praying the Lions can knock over the Waratahs, which would be a major boost to their Cape Town semi hopes ... but then their love affair with the red-and-whites will come to a very rapid end, when they tackle those very foes in the shadow of Table Mountain.

    What about the Brumbies, though? These two-time champions of the competition, albeit the last time having been in 2004, share with the Stormers not only the same tally of points but knowledge that two of their last three fixtures are at home.

    They’ll need a slip somewhere from the Waratahs to have a proper chance of seizing the Australian conference, but successive games against the Bulls, Force (the sole away one, in Perth) and fickle Crusaders aren’t ridiculously scary for them.

    After all, when the Bulls visit Canberra this Friday (11:40 SA time) they do so having been infuriatingly inept and indecisive in two prior tour games in New Zealand and sitting on a swelling run of nine overseas losses on the trot.

    It’s a white-knuckle ride, you can be pretty sure, for that precious runner-up slot ahead of the knockout phase.

    I hope for Allister Coetzee’s sake that his try-averse Stormers charges don’t get nudged out by a single point or thereabouts, because that might open up a significant cry over spilled milk ... er, sorry, spilled bonus points.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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