Stormers can emerge from Bulls’ shadow

RYAN VREDE writes that a Stormers victory over the Bulls will signal the changing of the guard in South African rugby.

Saturday’s match transcends in significance the battle for a play-off place, and is more than another chapter in a historic north-south rivalry. The Bulls have reigned unchallenged for years, but for the Stormers are poised to emerge from their shadow. To do that they have to win at Newlands.

The mental stranglehold the Bulls once held has loosened, and will be completely vanquished with a second victory in a season over the defending champions. The Bulls, particularly their senior Springboks, had an aura about them that used to intimidate the Stormers’ players, even when the battleground was Newlands. Certainly the Bulls have always been technically gifted and tactically astute, but the manner in which they had been able to invade the very psyches of their Cape counterparts was decisive in their ability to beat them consistently.

This is no longer the case. Time has seen a natural waning in the potency of the likes of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, the duo who represent the heartbeat of the Bulls. Familiarity, gained through Stormers’ players working at close quarters and socialising with these men, and indeed others like Fourie du Preez, Wynand Olivier, Dewald Potgieter and Pierre Spies, with the Springboks, has further eroded the aforementioned aura. Remember, it is only fairly recently that the Stormers has had as big a representation in the national team as they now do.

These factors, coupled with the rise and maturity of young players of exceptional calibre – Andries Bekker, Juan de Jongh, Francois Louw, Gio Aplon and Rynhardt Elstadt the most notable of those – have combined to edge the Stormers closer to ruling the Republic.

Don’t confuse this with Super Rugby pedigree, which, with three titles, the Bulls have and the Stormers, with zero, don’t. But there is an undeniable sense that the Bulls are reaching the end of an era, particularly with a clutch of their key players either retiring or continuing their careers abroad.

The Bulls know this too. My understanding, gained from speaking to sources close to the team, is that they no longer have the unshakable belief that they can dominate the Stormers in all facets of play like they have in the past. There is concern about Bekker as a lineout force capable of unsettling the usually unflappable Matfield, so much so that additional analysis has been dedicated to countering Bekker’s threat there. Elstadt is held in high regard after he outplayed Botha at Loftus, while the Bulls are deeply concerned about Francois Hougaard’s limitations as a tactical kicker, and how this could offer counter-attacking opportunities to the dynamic Aplon in particular.

Before you dismiss that respect as commonplace between the teams, understand that it never existed in recent history. The Bulls have always been supremely confident that they were superior across all facets of play. Schalk Burger was and still is highly regarded by the Bulls for his ball carrying and irrepressible spirit, but beyond him none of the Stormers’ players used to register on their radar. Even the gifted Jean de Villiers didn’t command too much attention, given the belief (which would usually materialise) that he would always have limited time and space to operate because his forwards would be pummelled.

Furthermore, in the past they could bank on the Stormers’ cavalier play to offer them opportunities from broken field. Now they are braced to be confronted with the pragmatic brand similar to the one they have employed so successfully.

Certainly there are commercial advantages to being South Africa’s leading franchise. But those pale in comparison in value to the rugby-related ones. Most notably, the Bulls have for years been able to attract the cream of South Africa’s young talent because of their desire to be associated with the best. Stormers can make themselves the preferred destination by establishing themselves as South Africa’s elite side.

That starts with victory. Failure to do so will see them remain the bridesmaids for at least another year.