MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day, writes the Stormers are more pretenders than contenders when it comes to Super Rugby silverware.
The Stormers won’t win Super Rugby tbis season and another home defeat could see them not even make the play-off Top Six.
The Stormers have dropped four from six matches and they still have to tour Australia and New Zealand.
Super Rugby, in his current form, is only into its second year, and based on last year’s results teams who have ambitions of hosting a play-off semi-final can’t afford to lose more than four matches.
Teams, aspiring just to make the top six, can lose up to six matches. But to win this tournament it’s rare (only the Crusaders and Bulls have done it) for a side to win an away final.
It is as rare for teams to win away semi-finals.
The Stormers simply had to win against the Cheetahs, as much as the Sharks had to be successful against the Crusaders.
The Sharks were good value for the win against the Crusaders and once again they turned to the youth of Kyle Cooper (hooker), Piet-Stef du Toit (lock) and Marcel Coetzee (flank) for inspiration. All three play direct rugby and all three made an impact in contact and in all tackle situations.
When the Sharks didn’t have go forward ball their backs looked inept and Pat Lambie, despite his brilliant goalkicking performance, still isn’t showing the flyhalf form of a few seasons ago.
The Sharks certainly are missing Tim Whitehead’s strong running and distribution at No 12 and the back three, as a unit, are still finding form comparable to their reputation.
The Sharks are also missing Willem Alberts and Jean Dysel’s physicality and they can only get stronger as the season continues. They will also have Bismarck du Plessis back post the June internationals and if they continue the winning habit the squad can only be strengthened come the play-offs.
The Sharks, my pre-tournament favourites, remain the best of the South African sides and they have shown an ability to win matches they could as easily have been lost.
The Stormers, by comparison, have gone the other way and their decline has been gradual over the last three seasons.
The Currie Cup final win of Western Province against the Sharks only added to an illusion that the Stormers (WP in another guise) were a team about to peak and not one whose best effort had already proved insufficient to win the tournament.
The Stormers should have won the tournament in Allistair Coetzee’s first season in charge, when they lost to the Bulls at Orlando Stadium in Soweto.
Referee Craig Joubert’s interpretation of the breakdown that Saturday killed the Stormers, who on balance were the better team. Joubert’s interpretation favoured the Bulls and Morne Steyn’s boot did the rest.
Rassie Erasmus, Coetzee’s predecessor, turned the Stormers from a squad of highly paid pretenders into contenders with substance.
Defence became the watchword and physicality became a weapon not usually associated with teams from the Western Cape.
But Coetzee, as head coach, has not advanced the style of play and those who were at a peak in the final against the Bulls have steadily regressed as individuals and also when asked to perform as a team.
The Stormers remain a good team, but not one that looks anything like championship material.
They lost two successive Super Rugby home semi-finals in the last two years and in both instances were emphatically beaten.
The team performance this season has been more consistent with the team that lost both those semi-finals.
The Sharks are not playing their best rugby and they haven’t come close to matching the enterprise that won them away play-off matches in Brisbane and Cape Town, but they have shown maturity to win ugly and still get results when not playing to their ability.
The Cheetahs are the people’s favourites in this competition and were worthy winners against the Stormers, but despite the fantastic start I can’t see them sustaining the momentum for another two months.
If the Cheetahs make a top six it will be an effort of note, but they would have to travel away, probably to New Zealand, to win the tournament, and I can’t see that happening.
The Crusaders and Chiefs remain the bookies’ favourites, and the Sharks continue to be South Africa’s strongest option.
The Brumbies started well but have suffered in recent weeks and I have a feeling they will struggle in Dunedin this weekend and may even lose out to the Reds in the Australian Conference.
The Kings were magnificent in the way they denied the Brumbies, and stronger New Zealand teams, will be even more effective.
This was a weekend that told us a heck of a lot about who are contenders and who are pretenders. To those in the Cape, your boys are pretenders.