Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Based on their last three
performances, it may seem foolhardy to some to suggest the Stormers retain
inside lane for the SA conference honours in Super Rugby this year.
Certainly if you were a non-partisan
observer watching their unconvincing, tense and sparkle-lacking victories over
the Force and Bulls, and then Saturday’s extension of a ballooning Bloemfontein
bogey as an under-strength Cheetahs outfit put a nasty spanner in their works,
placing money on their domestic superiority come the end of ordinary season
might seem a risky business indeed.
Yet the Capetonians, bumped back into
second spot in the group as the Bulls earned a full house of log points from a
high-quality home derby triumph over the Lions in Saturday night’s main feature,
probably remain the best-placed team in terms of remaining itinerary demands to
end up on top.
They have an immediate chance next weekend
anyway to recapture the lead in a yo-yo tussle as they entertain Australian
pace-setters the Brumbies at Newlands, whereas the Bulls slowly muster their
energy for their overseas tour via a bye.
The Loftus-based side currently have a
four-point lead over their great southern rivals after 11 matches each and five
to go ahead of the finals series phase.
In an indication of the general logjam on
the upper regions of the overall table, that four-point gap sees the Bulls
mandatorily placed second behind the Hurricanes – even though another New
Zealand side, the Chiefs, boast more log points – whilst the Stormers look some
way off the pace at first glance in seventh.
But that situation could alter markedly for
the better again if Duane Vermeulen’s outfit regain some semblance of a cutting
edge and better all-round accuracy – they seem due to! – against the visitors
from Canberra, who come off their own punishing derby defeat to arch-rivals the
Certainly the Stormers were victims of one
of the two genuinely upset results of the weekend (the other was the Rebels
holding off the Chiefs) as a wet-behind-the-ears Cheetahs combo frustrated and
outsmarted them at Free State Stadium.
The home side, perhaps in a planned policy
to a good degree, managed to keep scrums – normally the Stormers’ standout area
this year – to a minimum, whilst their lineout significantly held sway and they
found an unusual number of holes in the Cape side’s often-famed defence.
It was undoubtedly a game which will have
persuaded some to notably downgrade the Stormers’ title chances, and the result
– the visitors even failed at the death to bank a losing bonus point, courtesy
of yet another fluffed effort at the posts from hapless flyhalf substitute Kurt
Coleman – may also prove seriously costly on reflection if they narrowly fail
to nail down a home semi-final.
Make no mistake, the Bulls, who came so
close to winning at Newlands in the last round, produced a much more vibrant
brand of rugby in edging out the never-say-die Lions 35-33 in a Pretoria
Although they later had to repel a
concerted fightback by Warren Whiteley’s troops, this was especially applicable
in the frenetic first half when the fast-paced, ball-in-hand ethic of the Bulls
earned them three of their precious quartet of tries and probably caught the
Jo’burgers a bit by surprise.
But the cold fact remains that four of the
last five Bulls assignments are away from Loftus (and all abroad, where it
remains so difficult for our teams to win consistently) whereas the Stormers
are ready to embark on a four-game home sequence before rounding off the
pre-knockout campaign against the Sharks in Durban.
There just seem more potential “bankers”
for Allister Coetzee’s charges during the afore-mentioned period at Newlands
(Brumbies, bye, Rebels, Cheetahs, Lions) than there will be for the Bulls in
enemy territory against the Blues, Chiefs, Brumbies and Rebels.
That is not to say that the three-time
champions, with Victor Matfield back at the heart of things at a good time, are
going to suddenly fall off the radar. Of course they have a good enough chance
to keep their noses in front, particularly with the new-found width and
vitality they have brought to their game.
Those characteristics remain in worryingly
short supply in the Stormers fold, although I also suspect that a few “honesty
sessions” at their Bellville training base over the next few days may sort out
some issues ahead of a favourable-looking spell for them on paper.
Lions? Like the proud, unfancied boxer who
refuses to drop, they will keep throwing “leather” – it was every bit the case
to the 80th minute at Loftus -- but they are also entering relatively
virgin territory as playoffs contenders (currently eighth overall) while the
heat cranks up every week.
You might say they are a win behind the
Stormers and almost two behind the Bulls now, which gives them a fair bit of
ground to make up, and all five fixtures left for them (three at home against
overseas foes, plus visits to Bloemfontein and Cape Town) are tough ...
weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kickoffs SA time):
Friday, May 8
Crusaders v Reds - 09:35
Blues - 11:40
Saturday, May 9
Hurricanes v Sharks - 09:35
Force v Waratahs - 11:40
Lions v Highlanders - 15:00
Stormers v Brumbies - 17:05
Byes: Bulls, Cheetahs,
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing