Opportunity knocks for Stormers

JON CARDINELLI writes that winning three of their four tour matches would mark a significant return for a Stormers side with aspirations of topping the table.

The Stormers outmuscled the Highlanders in Dunedin, pushed the Crusaders close in Christchurch and more recently beat the Reds by 10 points in Brisbane. Thus far they’ve earned nine out of a possible 15 points on tour, and with a match against a weak and embattled Force team looming, they would expect to add at least four more to that tally.

At the beginning of the season, coach Allister Coetzee would have taken three wins in Australasia. The Stormers were faced with a demanding draw, playing the Bulls before journeying to New Zealand to play the ever-combative Highlanders. They were then expected to play the 2011 finalists back-to-back. On paper, it looked to be a tough ask.

Somehow the Stormers managed to shrug off the jet lag and beat the Highlanders. They struggled against a resurgent Crusaders team but still fought to claim a losing bonus point. They toiled in Brisbane to not only overcome the incumbent champs, but also ensured the Reds finished the game with absolutely nothing in terms of log points.

It has been a special effort by the Stormers, even more so considering an injury to a senior player has become almost a weekly occurrence. They travelled to Australasia without Schalk Burger, confident they still had a good balance between youth and experience in the forwards. That assumption was tested in Christchurch when they lost Andries Bekker, but it was a predominantly young and inexperienced pack that did the business in Brisbane.

While their performances have been far from polished they have managed to get the results. They will not have Burger nor Jean de Villiers available for their final tour fixture in Perth, and Bekker could also miss out, but they’ve shown enough to suggest that another win, an important win, is within their power.

The Force have been inconsistent this season and the sudden exit of coach Richard Graham isn’t going to help their cause. And yet, the Stormers can’t go to Perth with a complacent attitude. The Force are not a team to be taken lightly, as the Stormers found out in their defeat to the Western Australians in 2010.

How important that loss turned out to be in the final standings. The Stormers still earned sufficient log points to secure a home semi-final, but were forced to travel north to play the table-topping Bulls in the decider. The Bulls played the smarter rugby on that occasion, but it cannot be denied that the overwhelming Bulls support inside the Orlando Stadium gave the Pretoria side an advantage.

Some argue that for the Stormers to win their first Super Rugby title they will need to finish the league in pole position. There are of course no guarantees, as the Cape side lost to the Crusaders in a home semi-final last year, but there’s little doubt that finishing at the top of the table will place them in a powerful position.

The next few weeks could be crucial in this regard. They need to beat the Force, a feat that will allow them to finish the tour with at least 13 points (plus an extra four for the ensuing bye). Thereafter, they will be well placed to ram the advantage home, as four of their seven remaining matches will be played at Newlands.

At the beginning of the year, Coetzee spoke about breaking the five-month tournament into different segments. When they come to the end of the overseas tour, Coetzee and company will start looking to the four-match segment that precedes the break for June internationals.

They would be expected to beat the Cheetahs and Waratahs in Cape Town. The away wins in Australasia will have given them confidence ahead of testing away matches in South Africa, although the fixtures in Durban and Pretoria will certainly be the toughest before the play-offs.

When Super Rugby resumes after the June Tests, the Stormers will play the Lions at home, the Cheetahs away, and the Rebels at home. This final segment is somewhat easier and the Stormers would be favourites in all three matches, but it would be foolish to operate on that assumption. Right now, they need to collect as many log points as possible and not leave themselves with too much to do in the final weeks.

I’m still not convinced that the Stormers have the game plan nor the killer instinct to win the trophy, but at present they are picking up important wins that could all add up to a top-place finish.

The hardest part of their campaign is drawing to a close but it’s imperative that they go to their second bye on the back of a win, and then maintain that winning momentum in the four matches that follow.

Their goal of topping the league, and thus positioning themselves to win the title, could depend on it.

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