Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It is becoming increasingly clear: the two matches between the current overall log-leading Stormers and nearest SA conference rivals the Sharks are going to be both highly influential and have a heightened appeal on paper in Super Rugby 2020.
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The wait for game one between the old coastal adversaries will have been a reasonably long one by the time it comes around - at Kings Park on March 14.
That is still just under three weeks away, by which time the host franchise will have played six prior matches and the Capetonians five in the competition.
Their follow-up encounter will be at Newlands on April 18, leaving each team with a fairly solid handful of additional fixtures still to complete ahead of the knockout phase.
As things stand, and even with room still for many twists and turns, there is a swelling likelihood that both will be fighting spiritedly for places in the finals series.
From what we have witnessed so far from the pair of Highveld sides, the Bulls are already up against it - nought from three in the results column - in their quest to emulate last year’s presence there, and the Lions not looking too much more promising as they brace for four Australasian games that could see them slip notably backwards in the race as well.
The two Stormers-Sharks clashes, then, shape up as potential “eight-point swing” affairs. Put it this way: if one manages to knock over the other in both games - rather than the perhaps likelier 1-1 - it could have a particularly key bearing on which ends higher in both the conference and overall table.
John Dobson’s charges are five points clear of the Sharks after four games each at this juncture, although a key thing to bear in mind is that the Sharks are almost through their long tour of New Zealand/Australia and will come home happy, with either a two- or three-win record from the four assignments. (Both, based on historical data, would represent satisfying returns.)
The Stormers are still some way short of their main trek abroad, which will see them play the Chiefs, Crusaders, Brumbies and Sunwolves.
Come the big first showdown between them in Durban next month, we can already anticipate an intriguing clash of styles, with the grunt-laden Stormers front eight likely to target the pretty questionable Sharks set-pieces in a meaningful way, and the KwaZulu-Natalians believing they have the more zesty all-round game for the challenge, including that array of silken skills and explosive pace in their backline.
When the derby arrives, the Sharks may be in danger of at least some semblance of fatigue, as they will have played half a dozen games in as many weeks, without a break.
What’s more, they will have had a tricky home date with the Jaguares a week before, and that just a week onward from the end of their tour (against the Reds in Brisbane this Saturday): it will be an intended score-settler against the Argentineans, considering the 17-51 Durban debacle against the eventual group winners in 2019.
Their plight - if you want to brand it that - will contrast quite intriguingly with that of the Stormers when they arrive in Durban: the side from the Western Cape will instead be coming off a bye.
Steven Kitshoff and company have just one further obligation before the humungous, all-SA clash: the Blues at Newlands on Saturday, a game they will remain strongly tipped to win and stay unbeaten, despite the Aucklanders’ last-ditch triumph at soggy Loftus a couple of days ago.
Nevertheless, there can be mixed views about the “benefits” of bye weekends.
While on the one hand they provide an obvious chance to rest sore limbs and weary minds, some coaches fear the little layoff in some respects for the possibility of a cobwebs-growing phenomenon, leaving their charges potentially a bit out of sync at the outset of the first game back.
On that topic, it is interesting to note that when these foes lock horns again at Newlands further down the line, the Stormers will once again have come off ... you guessed it, a bye.
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