Stormers still lack title feel

    2015-03-01 12:30

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Somehow, the Stormers have managed to stay clear of the early-season fog already beginning to envelope the SA conference in Super Rugby.

    Notably imperfect for a second game on the trot, they nevertheless clung on desperately to pinch a dramatic 22-19 victory over the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday and stay unbeaten after three rounds: they command third spot on the overall table, just a point behind the Hurricanes and Chiefs.

    But it took a fabulous, pile-of-bricks tackle over the try-line by Damian de Allende, their outstanding inside centre, on Lions substitute Howard Mnisi to preserve that status long after the siren had sounded.

    The win was undoubtedly a courageous one by the Stormers, who reminded of the way they kept grinding out narrow victories in their table-topping – though ultimately no cigar -- 2012 season, but they were badly outwitted and outmuscled at the breakdown by their hosts, and captain Duane Vermeulen candidly admitted afterwards that their lineout was horribly ropey too. 

    In short, the Stormers don’t exactly shout “championship” at present although their confidence and competence ought to only mushroom if their winning habit continues – Schalk Burger’s fire in the belly and high work-rate among the loose trio will also be a welcome injection very soon, bearing in mind difficulties in Saturday’s close shave.

    Although there is a very long way to go in ordinary season, and the Cheetahs are also punching above their weight for the moment, events in Pretoria just a little earlier in the day would have done little to subdue the fear that the Sharks and Bulls – many domestic pundits’ tips in pre-season for powerful campaigns – have done themselves few favours in the first three weeks.

    At least the Bulls finally, importantly broke their Loftus duck, courtesy of a controversial (but probably still deserved) 43-35 derby triumph over the visitors from Durban.

    But even as they earned a full house of five points to snap a two-game losing home streak, just how much damage might have been done already to their bid for a critical, suitably lofty position going into the playoffs phase?

    The Sharks now find themselves in exactly the same position as the Bulls, sitting on one win from three starts and a modest six points each out of a possible 15 -- without either side having even thought yet of dusting off their passports for long-haul travel use.

    Particularly galling for Bismarck du Plessis and company was that in conceding a last-ditch -- and again slightly contentious -- try to Jan Serfontein, they even frittered away what would have at least been a well-merited losing bonus point from a frantic Highveld scrap.

    There is still scope for all sorts of twists and turns, but just think, for instance, how much ground the Sharks and Bulls have already conceded to a side like the ‘Canes, seven points ahead of them.

    The margin itself is formidable enough, but the New Zealand outfit have won all three of their opening fixtures outside their own country, in the foreign climes of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Perth respectively.

    So they are already done and dusted with trips through significantly different time zones in ordinary season, and can certainly look forward to plenty of matches in their “Cake Tin” stronghold, in particular, after putting their feet up for a seriously well-earned bye next weekend.

    And if any South Africans already feared the Chiefs are going to be right back in the frame for the big prize this season, an extra shiver would have gone down their spines as they watched them dismantle fading, seven-time past champions the Crusaders by 24 points this weekend.

    No South African side has yet gone overseas – though the bottom-of-log, winless Lions do so imminently and tackle the Blues at Albany on Saturday – but the better ones, or at least those thought to the main heavyweights in the country this year, have made patchy starts on our own soil, at best.

    The Loftus game on Saturday was undoubtedly exciting and full-blooded, but unconvincing from a technical point of view as defensive and other slips –like patient ball retention -- showed in both line-ups.

    It will be remembered for some highly questionable officiating from Jaco van Heerden, as well as from the TV booth, and mostly to the detriment of the Sharks ... but was also memorable for that old fox Victor Matfield quelling recent criticism of his playing standards with a hugely prominent role in getting under the visitors’ skins.

    Although the vastly more youthful Pieter-Steph du Toit showed some good touches at times as well, a fired-up Matfield bossed the keenly-awaited individual battle at No 5 lock and continued his under-appreciated role this season in making some vital tackles in open play.

    There is the risk of fresh peril for both teams next weekend – in other words, slipping to one from four – as the Bulls visit Bloemfontein to play the Cheetahs (fortunate to have pipped the Blues, but presumably buoyed by the very outcome) and the Sharks go to Newlands for another red-letter date with the SA pace-setting Stormers.

    Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Chiefs v Highlanders, 08:35; Brumbies v Force, 10:40. Saturday: Blues v Lions, 08:35; Reds v Waratahs, 10:40; Cheetahs v Bulls, 17:05; Stormers v Sharks, 19:10. Byes: Rebels, Hurricanes, Crusaders.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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