Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Whether they have the strength of all-round game to be realistic, maiden Super Rugby title material this year remains to be seen ... but for explosive scrummaging the Stormers must currently be considered the most feared unit competition-wide.
It was the cornerstone – cynics might say “salvation” – of their characteristically bruising, tight home derby success against the Bulls on Saturday in which several other departments came up undesirably short for them yet a succession of largely scrum-related penalties while rumbling forward kept their noses crucially in front.
Just for one thing, Allister Coetzee’s charges have managed no more than a lone penalty try in the “tries for” column over the past two matches against the unremarkable Force and then their fierce domestic foes, raising some new doubts about their flair aspect.
Nevertheless, the Newlands-based outfit are now in obvious pole position to seize the SA conference spoils, as well as challenge for a possible home semi-final.
Their best bet from here, arguably, is to aim for second place overall at the end of ordinary season; it still looks ominously as though a New Zealand team – either of the Hurricanes or Chiefs, most probably – will top the overall standings.
This writer’s gut feel is that the Stormers are thus now vying with two Australian rivals, the Brumbies and Waratahs, for second and the “other” home semi, given the tournament rules which contentiously prevent two teams from one country ending first and second despite general NZ dominance of the 2015 event at this point.
Those two Aussie franchises meet in a key fixture in Canberra on Friday, so one is likely to suffer a dent to its quest unless there is a peculiarly high-scoring, try-filled draw or other freak score-line.
In the Stormers’ favour, should they indeed find themselves scrapping for rights to the second semi-final, is that they have more home games remaining (four) than either of the Brumbies or ‘Tahs, who have three each – and that despite the defending champions from Sydney boasting one game in hand over the others.
Both the challengers from Down Under also have yet to negotiate tours of South Africa – and there’s a potential “eight-point swing” game occurring in a fortnight when the very Stormers entertain the Brumbies in Cape Town just ahead of a rejuvenating bye for Duane Vermeulen’s side.
Of course it is also risky and premature to simply assume the Stormers are going to run away with the local conference; as Saturday’s never-lie-down attitude from the Bulls showed, the men from Pretoria – just one point behind – haven’t given up at all on their own dreams of topping the SA pile although the route is harder for them from here on paper.
The Lions, revelling in a run of five straight wins, can also not yet be discounted as possible shock winners of the conference.
One thing seems safer to say: as long as that menacing scrum stays a major string to their bow, the Stormers should be right in the picture by the time the playoffs arrive, regardless of their eventual slot in the finals series pecking order.
They are benefiting from a “no mercy” sort of advantage at scrum time against most comers, given that their bench resources in the prop department offer little in the way of respite over a full course of 80 minutes.
Saturday again highlighted that if you pull off the likes of loosehead Steven Kitshoff and No 3 Frans Malherbe at different stages in the second half, the terrorising and dominance at the set-piece doesn’t necessarily end ... the likes of Oli Kebble and Vincent Koch ensure that.
It is probably not inaccurate to venture, after all, that in this quartet of youthful scrummaging enforcers, the Stormers have the best depth in the position right now of all teams in Super Rugby.
If the tense victory over the Bulls demonstrated one thing, it is that if coach Coetzee and his lieutenants are worried about flame-out – no pun intended – to someone like the often overworked Kitshoff in the No 1 shirt (it has happened in past campaigns) they could do a lot worse than hand a deserved start at some stage to the 125kg Kebble.
For example, would their scrum be too badly compromised if they gave a “rotational” start to Kebble and used Kitshoff off the bench against the Cheetahs, not the scariest of scrum foes, this weekend? Quite likely not.
The 22-year-old has been patiently coming on in leaps and bounds as an impact player, and put in one monster left-shoulder effort against the hapless Bulls in the final quarter.
This burly son of 1990s Springbok Guy Kebble also carries the ball assertively and makes his tackles firmly, something all of the Stormers prop personnel are doing with aplomb outside of the set-piece.
His development will be particularly pleasing to the franchise’s management and supporters given that Kitshoff, after this year’s Currie Cup, leaves Newlands to take up a contract with French club Bordeaux.
He will go near the end of the year, regrettably, at 23 and almost certainly still short of his prime, although he began his Super Rugby career as a notable “baby” for the Stormers in 2011, so they will have squeezed five good years out of him.
It is going to be a big challenge for them to hang onto the rest of their rich arsenal of front-rankers indefinitely, given the especially lofty prices quality props command in the foreign market; keep in mind that Koch isn’t even fully contracted to Newlands yet as he remains on the books of the unfashionable Pumas for Currie Cup purposes.
But at least for the moment, they have four – and even more, given the peripheral yet credible claims of men like Ali Vermaak and Wilco Louw – props of truly destructive capability.
It is a chance to make hay while the sun shines ...
*Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, May 1
Highlanders v Sharks - 09:35
Brumbies v Waratahs - 11:40
Saturday, May 2
Blues v Force - 07:30
Hurricanes v Crusaders - 09:35
Rebels v Chiefs - 11:40
Cheetahs v Stormers - 17:05
Bulls v Lions - 19:10
Bye: Reds*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing