Stormers set to be ‘new Lions’?

    2017-02-26 17:01

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The Lions, Super Rugby runners-up last season, were the one South African team to show a suitably futuristic or at least up-to-the-minute playing style... perhaps the Stormers are going to pluck away that mantle in 2017.

    Until the start of the Stormers v Bulls round-one headline fixture in the country on Saturday, domestic observers had little reason to believe the problems so apparent in our broader game during the 2016 season were magically disappearing.

    The Sharks had shown decent flashes of promise in Brisbane on Friday, but still got pipped and outwitted by the Reds, whilst the Lions were mostly lethargic on a heavy Bloemfontein pitch as they snuck out of jail in an error-strewn derby against the Cheetahs.

    South Africans badly needed to see some lifting of the fog, as it were, in the floodlit 19:30 fixture... and they got it, and then some, especially if they were in any way Stormers-partial.

    The game was a welcome cracker for a crowd of almost 35,000 (with the Bulls a little belatedly playing their own part in it) even if cynics might argue that any meaningful renaissance in creativity at Newlands will more accurately be gauged when the Stormers' first New Zealand opponents the Chiefs visit in round seven in early April.

    They should, by then, be the perfect barometer of any progress from last season, when you think about it: it was the Mooloo Men who humiliated the Stormers 60-21 before their own supporters in a 2016 quarter-final, when the pace and skill of the Chiefs' attack proved painfully overwhelming.

    But before falling into the trap of looking too far ahead, the Stormers do deserve a significant salute for the exhilarating fashion in which they put the Bulls away on Saturday night.

    The final score-line (37-24) had a slightly deceptive look about it, given that the Bulls had effectively been killed off in the first half, when their hosts opened up an almost fairy-tale 24-0 advantage over the old foes and left them leaden-footed and stunned with their intensity and verve - especially when it came to swift recycling and the cleverness and unpredictability of some of their running lines.

    Yes, it was almost like watching the fluid Lions of 2016, and the very meeting of those teams at Newlands on April 15 is another game on the horizon for domestic purists to start getting excited about.

    If the Bulls were shell-shocked in those frenetic first 40 minutes, there were certain mitigating circumstances, not least that fit-again flyhalf and acting captain Handre Pollard was playing his first Super Rugby match of any kind since May 2015.

    It showed, as the gifted Springbok struggled unusually under pressure - and off the tee - and was comfortably outplayed on the occasion by another 22-year-old in the rival No 10 shirt, Jean-Luc du Plessis.

    Be pretty sure that Pollard will get better, and it may even start when the Bulls play a second tough away derby in a row next weekend, against the Cheetahs.

    It is also an encouraging sign that the Bulls never totally buckled mentally, outscoring their hosts in the second period and eventually hauling the try count back to 5-4 in the Stormers' favour, even if that didn't properly tell the tale of the home team's clear-cut dominance at times in the full-blooded clash when it really mattered.

    Meanwhile the Sharks, if they can sharpen up in certain areas that let them down at Suncorp Stadium - like the erratic nature of their set-pieces and the general fluency of their attack - still have a puncher's chance of ending their short, almost indecently early Australian tour with a stabilising victory over the Brumbies.

    Not that it will be easy: the Canberra-based side, supposedly in a difficult transitional period, went toe to toe with seven-times champions the Crusaders before succumbing 17-13 in Christchurch.

    As for the Lions, they will hope for a harder, faster surface when they play their first home game, against the Waratahs, this Saturday - it just suits their battle-plan so much more.

    Next weekend's fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time): Thursday: Force v Reds, 12:30. Friday: Chiefs v Blues, 08:35. Saturday: Hurricanes v Rebels, 06:15, Highlanders v Crusaders, 08:35; Brumbies v Sharks, 10:45; Sunwolves v Kings, 12:55; Lions v Waratahs, 15:05; Stormers v Jaguares, 17:15; Cheetahs v Bulls, 19:30.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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