Stormers now SA’s best hope

    2015-04-13 14:15

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - They may have a traditional bridesmaids tag when it comes to their quest to go all the way to the title but the Stormers look reasonably clear-cut favourites, heading around the bend, to win the local conference in Super Rugby 2015.

    If they do, they will become the third different side to claim the local bragging rights in as many seasons, after the Sharks ruled the roost in 2014 and the Bulls were top dogs a year earlier.

    Three of the five South African teams have now played eight of their 16 league-phase fixtures, with the Lions and Sharks slightly ahead on nine each and with only seven games to go in their cases.

    As things stand, the Stormers are two points off SA leaders the Bulls but their “final straight” roster looks a whole lot easier on paper than the one facing the men from Loftus.

    Just for one thing, the Capetonians have only one overseas task remaining, and it looks a well winnable one against the Force, who are in the grips of a seven-match losing streak.

    The Bulls undertake their own Australasian mission right near the end of ordinary season - never ideal at a time when you crave momentum the most - and have a flimsy total of two Pretoria matches left, whereas the Stormers boast five.

    That is a pretty obvious and significant advantage.

    At least mathematically, those admirable “little guys” the Lions as well as the under-performing Sharks are still very much at the races for the playoffs, but my tip is nevertheless for the Stormers to crack an automatic finals series berth as conference masters and Pierre Spies’s side to end up being the lone other realistic South African challengers for a spot among the top six.   

    Here is my prediction for the conference pecking order at the end of ordinary season, with remaining fixtures in each case and an explanation for the placing:

    1 STORMERS (currently played eight: 22 points)

    Those five aforementioned games at Newlands (presumably with enthusiastic, ever-growing support from the stands if they’re on a roll) could be critical in ensuring Allister Coetzee’s charges end at the top of the local heap.

    There is also a remaining bye, quite conveniently smack in the middle of the eight obligations left, and the Stormers should be sitting especially pretty in the conference if they repeat their away derby triumph over the Bulls (29-17 in mid-February) with another victory over them in less than a fortnight’s time.

    Even if they stumble to their old rivals this time around, the Cape outfit should still find the rest of their run-in rather less formidable than the Bulls will, and leapfrog them then.

    Remaining matches: Force (a), Bulls (h), Cheetahs (a), Brumbies (h), bye, Rebels (h), Cheetahs (h), Lions (h), Sharks (a).

    2 BULLS (currently played eight: 24 points)

    Even second in the conference may become difficult for the Bulls if they lose both of their next-up, tricky away derbies in Durban and Cape Town, though I’d envisage at least one triumph from them (perhaps the former).

    The big question thereafter is: how many victories can they bag on tour? Bear in mind that last season the answer was a conspicuous zilch, although they ended within seven points each time for an effective “victory” via those four bonus points.

    The Blues and Rebels are their likeliest victims if they are to improve on that 2014 overseas duck, and ending their programme at home to the Cheetahs – one they ought to nail – could just be the game that decides whether they sneak the playoffs cut or not.

    Remaining matches: Sharks (a), Stormers (a), Lions (h), bye, Blues (a), Chiefs (a), Brumbies (a), Rebels (a), Cheetahs (h).

    3 LIONS (currently played nine: 21 points)

    For those South Africans outside of Jo’burg, the Lions may well have supplanted the Cheetahs this year as their “favourite other team”, such has been the spirit and eye-opening zest with which Johan Ackermann’s charges have gone about their business week in and week out.

    Make no mistake, they’re in the hunt for a maiden playoffs ticket under the conference system, and have four of their seven games left at home.

    That said, they remain tenacious underdogs more than anything else. Many of their wins have been desperately tight affairs: can that trend last?

    None of the three overseas teams yet to visit the Big Smoke look easy meat, whilst a last-round bye (the only team in the entire competition having one then) isn’t a desirable state of affairs if they’re still clinging to finals series hopes by then.

    Remaining matches: bye, Cheetahs (h), Bulls (a), Highlanders (h), Brumbies (h), Cheetahs (a), Waratahs (h), Stormers (a), bye.

    4 SHARKS (currently played nine: 20 points)

    I wish I could have had another week before making this ding-dong call of the unfashionable Lions eclipsing the Sharks into third!

    Put it this way: if the embattled Sharks were to win this weekend’s pivotal home derby with the Bulls, I’d be preferring them instead for the middle berth in the conference.

    But if the Sharks do botch it again on Saturday, I believe it relegates them to premature status as also-rans ... which would be a pity given that various steely Boks will start filtering back in the next few weeks from injury or suspension.

    Defeat to the Bulls would leave the Sharks perhaps having to win as many as five of their last six fixtures and if you take into account that the period includes their trek abroad, that seems a bridge too far, to my mind.

    Remaining matches: Bulls (h), bye, Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (a), Waratahs (a), Reds (a), Rebels (h), bye, Stormers (h).

    5 CHEETAHS (currently played eight: 13 points)

     Their tour is finally out of the way, ending as it did with the tonic of a win in Perth, and what’s left doesn’t look too severely scary on paper for the Cheetahs, particularly with five games looming in Bloemfontein.

    The side currently bringing up the conference rear by some distance may even cheekily start resurrecting playoffs dreams if they can thump the ragged Reds next.

    But my gut feel is that Francois Uys and company have just left themselves too much to do, either to slip into the top six or even to avoid the SA wooden spoon ...

    Remaining matches: Reds (h), Lions (a), Stormers (h), bye, Highlanders (h), Lions (h), Stormers (a), Waratahs (h), Bulls (a).

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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