Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It is fitting from a consistency point of view that the Stormers fight on in 2015 as lone remaining South African title hopes in Super Rugby.
We are within a month of reaching the completion of five years of the competition in a three-conference format, and the Newlands-based side only swell their reputation as toughest South African nuts to crack in the era - even if a glaring disappointment is the failure up to now of a team from these parts to actually go all the way to the title.
Memories only getter dimmer, regrettably, of the Bulls winning their last crown by beating the very Stormers 25-17 in a first-time final at Orlando Stadium in late May 2010, when the competition remained the less elongated Super 14.
Currently surrounded by a relative pall of gloom after a 2015 campaign that imploded abroad in recent weeks, at least the Bulls still boast the not inconsiderable bragging right of being the only South Africans to have demonstrated what it takes to go all the way - and on three occasions, into the bargain.
But times move on, and the very different, more “marathon” landscape that is the conference period has instead seen the Stormers most often carry the SA flag with strongest conviction.
Of the beaten Capetonian match-day squad that vibrant, pleasant day in Soweto five seasons back, only Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen and Juan de Jongh remain to try to go one better - against seemingly mounting odds now - this year.
But even if they falter at or near the last hurdle again, the confirmed conference champions can at least argue with some passion that they have been the most credible South African challengers for the main silverware if the full five-year period is taken into account.
The very obvious prime statistic in their defence of that view is that the Stormers have won the domestic conference - and yes, it simply has to be branded a weightier achievement than landing the now more superstar-shorn Currie Cup these days - three times (2015, 2012, and inaugural 2011).
Their traditional main “big franchise” rivals the Bulls (2013) and Sharks (2014) have only managed it once each thus far.
But if you run a toothcomb over the entire period from 2011 onward, other stats only more powerfully confirm the Stormers’ mastery of things in an all-SA sense.
For total Super Rugby wins (including finals series matches) in the period, Allister “Toetie” Coetzee’s charges - you can say that because he has held the coaching reins throughout it - come out tops among South African sides with 52 up to the present, which obviously fails to take into account just one remaining round of 2015 ordinary-season fixtures this coming weekend.
That is four superior to the Sharks (48) and six better than the Bulls (46).
If you employed their present overall log positions in 2015 (which quite possibly won’t change at all this Saturday) as part of an overall exercise to gauge their average finishing positions after ordinary season since 2011, again the Stormers would convincingly boss it.
They have finished overall, in order from 2011: second, first, seventh, eleventh and (provisional for 2015) third, for an average placing of almost fifth (4.8) - it tells you that more often than not they are pretty comfortable top-six qualifiers.
The Bulls, meanwhile, end just outside the elite six spots on average terms: they average a finish of 6.4th after ordinary season, as since 2011 they have ended seventh, fifth, second, ninth and (provisional for 2015) ninth again.
That is still slightly better than the Sharks, who average a finish of 6.8th over the five years: sixth, sixth, eighth, third and (already assured for 2015) eleventh.
One statistical mantle in the conference era that the Sharks can boast supremacy for is in the area of wins abroad - a good department for separating men from boys, as it were, especially given the enduring struggle of SA teams to actually land them.
The Durban-based side have earned a total of 10 triumphs in Australasia from 2011 onward (including one in the playoffs phase against the Reds in Brisbane in 2012), the Stormers are a close second on nine and the Bulls sport a rather more abject four, including none in either of the latest two seasons.
But that apart, all the signs point to the Stormers being the SA franchise most in tune with the requirements of being a respected force in Super Rugby in its present composition.
Certainly this year they have punched above their expected weight (many pundits in the summer predicted superior campaigns for either or both of the Sharks and Bulls), arguably doing better in ordinary season than in some recent years when they have had better depth on paper across the various positions.
Perhaps the Stormers will get the nationwide recognition they believe they deserve for their enduring competitiveness if they finally land the biggest fish this year?
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