No disgrace losing to quality team
It was disappointing to see the Stormers bow out of the Super Rugby race with such a whimper at the weekend, but some of the over-reaction to defeat in the Cape should be tempered by a reality check.
Since the final whistle blew at Newlands to signal a 29-10 Crusaders win and the end of the Stormers’ campaign I have repeatedly either seen it written or heard it said on social media that they were a disgrace. A disgrace to lose to the Crusaders – come on, you have to be kidding me?
If the Stormers are a disgrace for losing in a semifinal to the best team in the competition by some distance (they are the best, the travel is the only thing preventing them from running away with it) then what does that make the Sharks, the Bulls and all the other teams that weren’t able to get this far and that came second to the Stormers for most of the season?
To me the over-reaction is rooted in false expectation that was not dissimilar to that which swept through the Cape in 1997 when the local media decided that in the name of patriotism the line should be peddled to the masses that the Olympics would be coming to Cape Town in 2004.
Just about every Cape man, woman and their dog was tipping a Stormers win this past weekend, and down in the shadow of Table Mountain, the Stormers were overwhelming favourites. But those who read my column three weeks ago entitled “A hunch about Crusaders” and my stories from last week will know I am not being wise after the event when I question what this confidence was based on.
Here are the reasons why the Crusaders' right to be regarded as at least equal favourites in the Newlands game had to be taken seriously.
Firstly, the travel factor which saw me write off the Sharks' chances in Nelson the week before did not apply to the same extent to the Crusaders – who anyway live in aeroplanes these days – as they were flying from east to west, and into time instead of away from it.
They won in Cape Town in May after playing in Perth the previous week, so what really was the big deal for them? Yes, people will now be pointing out that the Bulls won three home semifinals against the Crusaders in the space of the past four seasons, but that is not comparing apples with apples. The Bulls’ home ground is at altitude. It makes a big difference.
And last season, when the Crusaders were blown away in Soweto, it wasn’t down to one flight across the time zones, but several, for they had been in South Africa just two weeks before and had had to fly back to New Zealand to play their last league game before returning for the play-off game.
Then there is the bye aspect. The Bulls rested up last year before Orlando Stadium, and it made a difference to them. The Stormers did the same this past week, and it should have made a difference to their challenge, but they were up against a Crusaders team that should have been oblivious to the bye argument for it did not apply to them.
Why do I say this? Well, it comes down to the Crusaders having had their second bye of the competition just a couple of weeks ago, and also the fact that every week they have welcomed back more injured players.
A few weeks ago the Crusaders looked a bit disjointed as the injured players had to be assimilated back into the system. But unlike most of the other teams at the end of a long competition, the Crusaders weren’t a team that needed a rest – on the contrary, they needed to play more to get back their momentum.
They started to get that momentum back in the second half against the Sharks, and I took that as an ominous sign for the Stormers.
The Crusaders teams that lost to the Bulls were also nowhere near as good as this one is. There has been enormous growth at the south island franchise in the past year, and deny it though so many South Africans seem to want to, Sonny Bill Williams has brought a different dynamic to an already solid game fronted by easily the most destructive and immovable tight five in the competition.
A second-string Crusaders side beat the Stormers at home two months ago, so it was quite confounding that suddenly they should not be considered to be favourites when at full strength. Perhaps it all comes down to people thinking with the heart and not the head.
When I wrote a few weeks ago that the Sharks needed a miracle to beat the Crusaders I took flak from people who said I should have some faith. Sorry, but I am a reporter, not a supporter, and if I were to write the game from blind faith and not as I see it then I should be working for a fanzine.
Make no mistake, the Stormers were poor in the semifinal. But they can hardly be a disgrace when they were playing on a weekend when 11 other teams weren’t. If you want disgrace, think back six years to the league game that finished the 2005 season with a 75-14 defeat to the Bulls.
The franchise has travelled a long way since then, but there is some travelling to do before they can eclipse a very good Crusaders team. And in my view that applies to every other team in the competition, including the Reds.