Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
The location was a Camps Bay setting for his magazine cover shoot when I sat down with Bob Skinstad, two years onward on from the big flashpoint, and began the interview with a question he clearly saw coming.
“So Bob, on the night of …”
His interruption was twinkle-eyed and razor-sharp, I must say.
“Ja, ja ... on the night of April 18, 1999, by any chance?”
“How did you guess, Bob? On that date, did you a) injure your knee in a car crash near your Claremont home; b) injure your knee in an altercation with the Crusaders’ flank Angus Gardiner or scrumhalf Justin Marshall; c) get rescued from whatever your tight spot was by Stormers coach Alan Solomons in his pyjamas; d) get attacked by aliens; or e) none of these?”
His reply: “Ah, all those conspiracy theories ... I think it was probably Solly, in his pyjamas, coming down with the aliens in their spaceship. But the answer is ‘a’. I appreciate your readers may have been a bit confused (by the avalanche of speculation).”
Register your interest for the British & Irish Lions tickets in South Africa 2021
Whatever the fine detail of that fateful occasion, a youthful Skinstad, then the skipper at Newlands and darling of the Capetonian sports scene, incurred a serious knee injury that put paid to his own, pivotal contribution to that dynamic Super 12 season for the “Men in Black” Stormers. (It has been argued, hardly without justification, that the once blistering-paced, swerving Springbok loose forward was never the same player subsequently, though he remodelled himself cleverly and courageously.)
The Skinstad major mishap happened, a few hours later, in the afterglow of another massively encouraging, 28-19 triumph over the Crusaders before a jam-packed crowd of 48 000, which had propelled the Stormers to six wins from eight matches toward the back end of ordinary season.
They had a hugely able, obvious fill-in as captain, of course, in the shape of Skinstad’s co-loosie Corne Krige, a man with a charisma of his own who tore fearlessly into collisions and general contact as if blessed with an extra 20kg to his athletic but relatively lean frame.
But two hugely costly, late-campaign result setbacks were to mark their intended, albeit Skinstad-less surge toward first-time title glory.
Despite being blessed by the coaching astuteness and man-management of Solomons and the skills of such characters as Percy Montgomery, Breyton Paulse, Robbie Fleck, De Wet Barry, Selborne Boome, Charl Marais and Cobus Visagie, the Stormers royally botched up their closing round-robin game ... which should have ensured top spot on the table ahead of the Queensland Reds, whom they’d earlier grilled 35-14 in Cape Town to enormously underline their credentials that year.
Playing humdrum (at the time; they ended 11th) compatriots the Cats at Newlands, the home side crashed to a debilitating 18-16 loss ... in time-honoured SA fashion, no derby favours handed out, especially in any clash between earthy “northerners” and a coastal outfit those opponents possibly considered a bit too flashy and rockstar-like at the time.
So the Stormers were curtailed to second-placed finish, albeit level on points (36 each) with the gleefully table-topping Reds - though still guaranteed a home semi against the Highlanders.
But some of the sting had clearly been drawn from them and, not helped at all by the morning-of-match newspaper revelation of a mooted player-strike rebellion in the Stormers ranks, they succumbed to a clear-cut 33-18 reverse on a gloomy day to Anton Oliver’s fired-up side from Otago.
Somehow, the Cape side had seemed destined for so much more in ‘99, but sport can be harsh and unsentimental, can’t it?
The Stormers would not revisit a semi for a further five years until 2004, although it would take the Allister Coetzee coaching tenure, between 2010 and 2015, for them to be more consistently “back at the races” in lofty areas on the log.
They would reach the showpiece (still the only time this has happened for them) in his very first year at the off-field tiller, although they had ended second overall to the Bulls and were quite well beaten in the Soweto-staged final (25-17) … even if captain Schalk Burger was demonstratively at odds with Craig Joubert’s officiating that day.
I steadfastly believe 2012, however, really represented their best stab at that elusive silverware in the “Toetie years”.
Yes, the Stormers’ attacking play contained many of the shortcomings still apparent to varying degrees to the present: almost unbelievably, they topped the overall table after ordinary season (14 wins, only two setbacks) despite scoring fewer tries (28) than ANY other team in the competition.
But they had a sturdy, industrious and well-glued pack with greenhorns Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and Steven Kitshoff already making sound strides, a direct-in-style flyhalf in Peter “Bash” Grant, and a collective defensive ethic and level of organisation that was truly admirable as they crucially conceded only 21 tries -a tourney-wide record of a more wanted kind.
By topping the pile, Jean de Villiers’s side (back-liners around the stalwart Bok midfielder included Bryan Habana, Gio Aplon and Juan de Jongh) had the luxury of an auto-ticket to a home semi-final, and entertained old domestic rivals the Sharks in it, fully mindful that the KZN side had ended a mere sixth and been required to trek wearily to faraway Brisbane a few days earlier to gutsily, unexpectedly win a quarter-final 30-17 against the Reds.
The odds seemed so stacked in Stormers favour … did that backdrop bring with it an involuntary little dose of complacency at Newlands? Did the Sharks sense it, too?
With French pivot Freddie Michalak to the fore in notching 16 points through a brace each of dropped goals, penalties and conversions, the Sharks produced a plucky display of “desperation” to outgun the Stormers 26-19 before their stunned faithful. (The Sharks’ truly thankless journey back across the Indian Ocean again to play the Chiefs in the final duly, almost inevitably led to a 37-6 thrashing in the showpiece.)
I have an enduring image of the popular, usually jocular and effervescent De Villiers looking rarely shell-shocked and close to tears at the post-match press briefing.
Another spirited Stormers crack at “maximum” glory, but cork still in champagne bottle …
READ | Fine SA Super Rugby vintages: Sharks 1996-98
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing