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Two-horse race but wrong horses running

There are probably a few people who have memories and enough of an interest in what I think who will be giggling at my expense when they look at the current Super Rugby logs.

There is a column in the archives from earlier in the season where I went quite strongly for the Bulls’ potential to make nonsense of my prediction of the South African conference race being between the Stormers and Sharks. But the Cheetahs as possible participants in any kind of race, let alone what is fast becoming a two horse one between themselves and the Bulls? Ha ha, let me own up to that one. Never saw it coming, and my congratulations to the two people and a cat who did.

The Sharks I’m not sure about for their injuries just keep mounting, but I still wouldn’t completely write off the Stormers’ chances of retaining their conference title. They’re not playing badly, they have Eben Etzebeth back, and I would back them to win all their remaining games at Newlands. Yes, that includes the Cheetahs and the Bulls.

At this stage they are just eight behind the conference leaders, the Bulls, and the Bulls do have visits to Durban, Bloemfontein and Cape Town in their future. Once the Stormers get back to South Africa from overseas they have just one away trip, and it is to Port Elizabeth. Sorry Southern Kings fans, my money says the Stormers will win that one.

So it’s entirely possible that the Stormers could do what the Sharks did last season and come storming back. The big if, however, centres on their next game – they play the Waratahs in Sydney at the weekend and on their current form, the Waratahs must start as marginal favourites. If they lose that game, their interest in the conference battle will be consigned to history for the Stormers, and any two-horse race with the Sharks will be at best for eighth place.

What’s happened to the two coastal teams? Well both of them have been impacted heavily by injury, and the Stormers started with a schedule from hell. They were always chasing the game after losing the two away derbies that they began the season with in Pretoria and Durban, and they may be at fault for not placing enough of a stress on the need to hit the season running.

Perhaps past experiences can play too much of a hand in the decision-making at franchise level. The Stormers started the last two seasons like they had a train to catch and yet they lost home semifinals to the Crusaders and Sharks. The talk at the start of the year, before Super Rugby started, was that they could possibly afford some early defeats as they had learned from past experience that the time to be peaking was in the playoffs.

The problem with that is that you have to be in the playoffs if you’re going to peak in them. And the loss of early games created pressure, the sort of pressure that the Stormers succumbed to when they were chasing the game against the Blues this last weekend. In many ways the Blues game was a microcosm of the Stormers’ season thus far, with their failure to score first-half points when it was on for them to do so coming back to bite them in the third quarter.

The Stormers haven’t lost yet to a poor team. Remember that their defeat to the Cheetahs was in Bloemfontein and wasn’t going to happen before they lost the last scrum of the game, and the Blues team that they lost so narrowly last time out – and should really have beaten – is considered to be on the up.

Both the Sharks and the Stormers may have misdiagnosed ailments that prevented them from getting over the line last season. Playing in the Durban humidity in February is debilitating, but there did appear to be a switch in the Sharks' emphasis to a more conservative game at the start of the competition. And the Stormers, with last year’s Currie Cup triumph still way too fresh in their minds, seemed a bit too pre-occupied with the continued pleas from their media and public to play a more expansive game.

Both of them appear to be correcting in the opposite direction, back to what saw them emerge at the top in last year’s Super Rugby (the Sharks made the final, the Stormers topped the overall log), but it may have come too late. This coming weekend, when the Sharks go to Brisbane and the Stormers to Sydney, will tell us whether it is or isn’t.

While on the subject of what we expected to see and didn’t get this season, let me state that what we saw in Port Elizabeth this past weekend, with the Southern Kings being smashed, is what we expected to see every week. That such a fuss is being made of that defeat is only indication of how much the Kings have actually exceeded expectations this season.

A lot of people appear to miss the point that is being made about the Kings. No-one expected them to win any games this year, let alone two, because they are a brand new franchise. They had little time to get themselves together and the promotion-relegation system that was put in place impacts negatively on both themselves and the Lions in the sense that it doesn’t make those regions attractive for prospective newcomers who want a long-term commitment.

It would only be with a guaranteed stay in Super Rugby that the Kings would be able to make the growth in terms of playing resources from outside that is needed. At the moment there isn’t enough talent and experience in their team for them to be able to afford a day like this last Saturday, where they lacked focus and didn’t have the energy to play with the character they have for most of the season.

However, there was one event this past weekend that happened away from the Super Rugby theatre that may have huge significance. The Eastern Province Kings, who are effectively the Southern Kings’ second-stringers and back-up players, beat the Vodacom Blue Bulls in Pretoria to make the semifinals of the Vodacom Cup.

The Kings struggled to get that far in the past when their Vodacom Cup team was their full-strength team, so that, along with the young black players who are already starting to come out of the Academy and making an impact in Super Rugby, is hugely encouraging. Rugby in the Eastern Cape appears to be growing and that should have long-term benefits for the country.

I hope the SARFU decision makers are taking note of what Super Rugby participation is doing for rugby in a region with huge potential to accelerate the transformation agenda.

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