Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – There are almost certainly still superior teams in the broader competition than they are, but the unbeaten Stormers have ended round five of Super Rugby easily the most commandingly-placed outfit of all in strictly conference terms.
Of the four conferences, their Africa 1 group is looking the most notably lopsided.
While it is altogether more cut-throat stuff in Africa 2, plus in the specific New Zealand and Australian conferences, the Capetonians found several results going blissfully in their favour on Saturday in their four-strong pod, ensuring an ever widening gap between them and the rest.
Importantly, and with apologies to 007, they were shaken by the Sunwolves but ultimately not stirred in Singapore, as their significantly weakened side mustered the second-half strategic gumption to douse the Japanese combo’s fire 44-31 in a dramatic encounter.
The Stormers, who only salvaged a last-gasp draw in the city-state last year – maybe they should invest in a hair salon there, given their booming penchant for close shaves? – were hugely under the cosh at various times, including falling behind 24-10 and later 31-20 as the Sunwolves relished the fast and loose initial feel to the game.
But for a relatively rookie XV, with several first-time positional combinations, the men from Newlands adapted their plan pretty shrewdly as the game wore on, turning to a more conservative, physically-committed approach – aided by authoritative showings from the half-back pairing of Dewaldt Duvenage and Robert du Preez.
In the final analysis, they were good enough value for the victory, even if it was narrowly not accompanied by a bonus point; the try count was 6-4 in their favour.
If relief was a likely emotion in the post-match dressing room, Robbie Fleck’s charges would have been even happier given other outcomes affecting teams in Africa 1.
Ahead of their own game, domestic arch-rivals the Bulls had been bumbling, leaden-footed and tactically bereft in a 38-14 whipping from the Blues – probably still the weakest NZ side, which is scary -- at Albany.
That result left the tourists from the Highveld on a mere five points after four matches, and in distant third on the conference table … a whole 12 points shy of the pace-setting Stormers (17).
Just as gratifyingly for the Stormers, the second-placed Cheetahs, who stay rooted on nine points and having played an extra fixture, got nothing out of their good-quality home derby against a much-improved, more dynamic Sharks side who had teenage wunderkind Curwin Bosch again as a key influence.
If he maintains his present performance levels, the twinkle-toed utility back will earn more and more support for Springbok involvement in mid-year, whether it be at flyhalf or fullback – his accurate and surprisingly powerful place-kicking served his team especially sumptuously on Saturday.
“He’s the complete footballer,” said SuperSport pundit and former Bok wing Ashwin Willemse admiringly in the SuperSport studio, “he is 19 years old but almost looks like he has been in his position (No 10 against the Cheetahs) for 19 years.”
The Cheetahs’ never-say-die approach (they had led at halftime) meant they were almost always in the full-blooded Bloemfontein contest but, pretty unjustly, they even failed agonisingly on the final scoreboard – 38-30 – to snaffle a losing bonus point.
When you think that the Stormers next entertain the Free Staters at Newlands on Saturday, that the Bulls have to move on to play the all-wins Chiefs and the Sunwolves (a flimsy one log point) have a bye, the mind boggles as to how much more the conference gap could expand next weekend.
In a positive development for neutrals in this country, Africa Conference 2 is greatly more tense, with the Lions (19 points) only two clear of the Sharks and playing those very foes at Emirates Airline Park in an April Fools’ Day humdinger.
Expect Warren Whiteley and company to be installed as smart money for a home win in the lead-up, although there were enough chinks in their armoury against the Kings in Port Elizabeth – they prevailed 42-19, just managing a bonus point after a prolonged second half slack-off – to give the Sharks a sniff of a mild upset when the clash comes along.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Rebels, 08:35. Saturday: Blues v Force, 06:15; Chiefs v Bulls, 08:35; Reds v Hurricanes, 10:45; Stormers v Cheetahs, 15:05; Lions v Sharks, 17:15. Sunday: Waratahs v Crusaders, 08:05. Byes: Kings, Brumbies, Sunwolves, Jaguares.