Conference battle done and dusted
This past Saturday confirmed the old adage that a short time can prove a very long time in rugby – in this instance it taking just under four hours for what was becoming a tense battle to win the South African conference in Super Rugby into a foregone conclusion.
The Stormers are only five points ahead of the Bulls with three games to play, and as the Cape team’s coach Allister Coetzee pointed out at the post match press conference at Loftus on Saturday night, there is still a lot of rugby to be played. But given that the number of wins will eventually dictate who advances to the knockouts in the event of a tie at the top, that five point lead is now a significant one.
It means that the Stormers can afford to lose to one of the Lions (home), Cheetahs (away) and Rebels home and they will still top the conference even if the Bulls, who are now the only other team in contention, win all their remaining games, which includes a tough away derby against the Sharks in early July.
The Stormers have lost only twice in 13 games this year, so what chance is there really of them losing two of those three games, which is what would need to happen for the Bulls to stand a chance? Given the resolve they continue to show and which was there in abundance in their blood and guts victory at the Bulls’ home ground, the chances of the applecart being upset are negligible.
And you have to remember too that the Stormers have been helped by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s decision to give most of the Stormers players a rest over the next four weeks before the next Super Rugby game. While several Bulls and Sharks players will be playing non-stop rugby over the next three Saturdays during the Springbok/England series, there will be only three Stormers in action in the form of Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana and Eben Etzebeth.
“The players are being rested”, was the slightly gleeful response of a Stormers management member to a question about the fact that the team topping the conference provides only three members of a national squad of 32 while the two teams below them provide 24 between them. Couple that with the expected returns to the playing field after the break of Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen, Andries Bekker, Nick Koster and Joe Pietersen and even the most pessimistic Stormers fan would have to admit that it is now looking decidedly rosy for their team.
And it goes beyond just the outlook for the South African conference. The Chiefs, who currently lead the Stormers at the top of the overall log by four points, have tough derbies against the Crusaders and the Highlanders in their future. So the prospect of the Stormers finishing first is not an unlikely one. If they do, thus ensuring all the knockout matches are at home, including the final if they get there, they will be the overwhelming favourites to win the competition, particularly because they will also be the freshest of the top teams.
It’s all a very different outlook to the one that just about everyone was predicting on Friday. With the Stormers severely depleted by injury, not many gave them a chance at Loftus, which meant the Bulls would overtake them in the conference and the Sharks, who were expected to pick up a full house of log points against the Lions, would draw level.
It was going to take an extraordinary effort for the Stormers to win, but the impression that it could turn into an extraordinary evening was created by the Lions’ shock win over the Sharks in the first of the South African derbies.
The Lions were magnificent in that first half and while it is easy to blame the Sharks for perhaps starting without the necessary intensity it has to be noted that the catch-up game they have been playing on the log over the past few weeks has demanded constant intensity from them and they were probably due for a blip at some stage.
And you also have to pay credit to the Lions for the rugby they played in the first half. They hit a purple patch where everything went right for them and as a result they scored a ridiculous first-half haul of 32 points. The Sharks fought back but the 21-point deficit just proved too much.
Up the N1 highway at Loftus the Bulls looked for most of the way as if they were going to strangle the Stormers out of the game but they just couldn’t nail the points that were necessary. The Stormers are a team that just doesn’t go away, something that Sharks coach John Plumtree had noted a week earlier, and with the knowledge that they had a break to look forward to and not a series against England, the players were able to go for broke and put their bodies on the line.
With jetlag always going to be a factor late in the game for the Bulls, it wasn’t surprising when the Stormers started to carry the ball in the last 15 minutes, and when Bryan Habana took an inside pass from the brilliant Siya Kolisi seven minutes from the end it confirmed that the full moon shining down on Pretoria had been an ominous one for the hosts, who have now lost three on the trot.
In other significant results this weekend, the Chiefs only just edged their derby against the Blues to retain their seven point advantage at the top of the New Zealand conference ahead of the rampaging Crusaders, who scored their second consecutive 50 pointer, this time against the Highlanders.
Crusaders 51 Highlanders 18
Rebels 19 Brumbies 27
Blues 34 Chiefs 41
Waratahs 12 Hurricanes 33
MTN Lions 38 Sharks 28
Vodacom Bulls 14 DHL Stormers 19