Who are Stormers trying to kid?
Unless he’s delusional, DHL Stormers coach Allister Coetzee must have been doing some biting of his tongue when he told a Cape Town media conference this week that the results at this time of the year are irrelevant and there is no pressure on his team.
While it is true that the Sharks recovered last year from a poor start to play in the final, and the Stormers themselves very nearly did it back in Rassie Erasmus’s first year in charge in 2008, when they lost their first three matches and then were one bonus point short at the end of the league phase, having a record of played two lost two is not something Coetzee will want.
Such a start to the season, with the champion Chiefs coming to Newlands the following week with a point to prove, would place the Stormers under massive pressure. And while the Sharks did recover from a slow start last season to play in the final, you just have to speak to the Sharks coaches about what they went through to get there.
They were on a final footing from about Easter, with every game being a must-win, and even then they could only finish in a position that forced them to fly to Brisbane for a quarterfinal.
The Stormers do have an easier run in during the second half of the competition, and they do have enough depth now to sustain injuries and still be a strong unit when that stage arrives. But chasing the game in the SA conference battle and on the overall log table is not something that the Stormers are used to doing, at least not the current crop under the coaching of Coetzee.
We can only guess at how they will respond to the sort of pressure that for the Sharks has become almost second nature given the habit they have made over the past three seasons of starting the season like they spent the summer scoffing sleeping pills. The Cape media is not exactly renowned for sense of perspective, and Coetzee must know that is as big a reason as any to avoid falling into a hole that might just be made out to be a crater in the city that he lives.
You just had to be at the press conference at Loftus following last week’s game to establish that Coetzee and skipper Jean de Villiers didn’t take the defeat to the Bulls well, and the Sharks should be warned that when they spoke about doing a lot of hard, honest talking and putting in a big effort on the training field during the week they would have meant it.
For his part, Sharks coach John Plumtree is under no illusions that the Stormers will be better this week than they were in Pretoria. That being so, his own men might have to be improved on their effort in Bloemfontein if they hope to avenge last year’s Currie Cup final defeat. But last week it was the Bulls who were under more pressure as they were playing at home, this week it’s the Stormers who face the pressure after already dropping one game.
One thing that Coetzee is right about when he talks about less pressure early in the season is that the teams tend not to be as consistent and get the momentum they do later in the competition, and it is difficult to really talk about form and make predictions based on that. It will take a couple of weeks for the pattern of the competition to establish itself.
However, the two teams that can be said to be in form at the moment based on more than one match are the Brumbies and the Bulls, with the latter having shown the same form last week against the Stormers that they did during an impressive pre-season.
Apart from the game in Durban, the interest this week should focus on the Crusaders’ entry into the competition. They play the Blues in Auckland first up and that’s going to be a tough ask for them given how the Blues played last week in Wellington.
WEEKEND PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS
Blues v Crusaders, Auckland 8:35am
The Crusaders should be pleased they’re not making their entry into the competition after a bye in the opening week against an Australian team as that would mean they would be playing a team that’s already played twice. But the Blues were sharp in their first game last week and the Crusaders are up against it. The Todd Blackadder era has not been convincing and there are a lot of questions that have to be asked about where they are going as a franchise, but on paper the Crusaders look strong, and to my mind they are always less beatable when they have John Plumtree lookalike Kieran Read at the helm.
Prediction: Crusaders by less than 5.
Waratahs v Rebels, Sydney 10:20am
The Waratahs have a lot of people expecting big things of them but they started on a false note last week in Brisbane. It was their first game though and the Reds were playing their second, so this match will tell us more about the Waratahs’ potential. They should win convincingly.
Prediction: Waratahs by 7 to 15.
Reds v Hurricanes, Brisbane 12:20pm
The Hurricanes enjoyed an unexpected resurgence last year but were disappointing in losing their first match to the Blues – at home too. They have Conrad Smith back as captain this week and that will make a big difference, but I’m expecting the Reds to re-establish Brisbane as a fortress this season so they start with a slight edge.
Prediction: Reds by less than 7.
Chiefs v Cheetahs, Hamilton 8:35am
Sarel Pretorius is back for the Cheetahs and they played some inspiring rugby in New Zealand last year. But the Chiefs were awesome last week and the Cheetahs have just done one of those long flights across the time-zones, so any optimism of an upset is wishful thinking.
Prediction: Chiefs by 15+
Vodacom Bulls v Western Force, Loftus 5:05pm
Frans Ludeke spoke about his team’s first “international opposition” after last week’s game as if the Western Force were something to fear. In truth the only people who should be fearing anything on Saturday is the Australians, for it would be the shock of the century if they won at Loftus, where the Bulls were very impressive against the Stormers. The Bulls have lost players to injury but they should win comfortably, with even my prediction being perhaps a bit conservative.
Prediction: Bulls by 18+
Sharks v DHL Stormers, Kings Park 7:10pm
Was last week the wake-up call the Stormers needed? If it was, and they have now finally shaken off any complacency derived from last year’s Currie Cup success, they could well win Saturday’s big derby at Kings Park. They have the pack, it’s just going to have get into the game earlier and execute better than was the case at Loftus. But the Sharks have a strong pack too and I like the look of it when Jean Deysel is on the flank. Frans Steyn has also been added to the mix at the back since the Currie Cup season so there isn’t any noticeable superiority for the Stormers backs this time, and my money says that if the Sharks play to their potential they’ll win.
Prediction: Sharks to win by 1 to 7.