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The real test lies ahead





In recent weeks, people have been suggesting that we will find out how good the Stormers are when they fly to New Zealand.

There’s an implication that they’re about to run into something a level above what they’ve met so far.

But is this equally going to tell us how good the Crusaders are?

Compare the records and there doesn’t appear to be much between them

The Stormers have lost one of seven games, beaten by an outstanding Lions team but playing a full part in an excellent game.

Before that they beat a very good Chiefs team, and fought off the Jaguares and Bulls in tough contests. The Kings, Sunwolves and Cheetahs have been dispatched with a little more comfort.

The Crusaders' unbeaten record needs some context. They have played more against Australian opponents than New Zealand teams, having accounted for the Brumbies, Reds (thanks to a last minute penalty), Force and the Waratahs in Sydney.

Other than that, they’ve edged the Blues and Highlanders and breezed past the Sunwolves.

So it might be fair to say the Crusaders' perfect record has come against a worthy, but not toughest possible list of opponents.

The Stormers and Crusaders have scored a similar number of tries, but the Crusaders have conceded six fewer.

The Stormers have converted 73 percent of their goal kicks, to the Crusaders' 62 percent.

They both have outstanding scrum stats, but the Crusaders are more secure on their own lineout ball.

Neither will be at full strength with the Stormers well documented midfield back issues, while Israel Dagg and Digby Ioane will be missing from the Crusaders, although significantly Kieran Read has returned, along with Richie Mo’unga.

There will be some colossal head to heads, especially up front, with an elite level clash at lock, two very good loose trios, and two of the best scrums in Super Rugby.

The Stormers will be disappointed to be heading off on this very challenging journey on the back of a loss.

They know they will need to improve a few areas of their game against a Crusaders side that is more about consistency, accuracy, and discipline than the sort of searing brilliance we have seen from the Hurricanes and Chiefs.

The Stormers' discipline wasn’t as good as it needed to be at Cape Town, they lost the penalty count and one or two forwards got a bit too wound up, notably Eben Etzebeth.

Still, it was a great game to observe, in front of a big crowd, another indication not only that the best South African teams are going to be a very big factor in deciding this year's Super Rugby, but also that if the Springbok coaching staff are prepared to reward form and take the lead from the sort of rugby being played in these games, then it should be a better year on the international front as well.

We have all noted the improvements in the Stormers this year, and the effect of more progressive coaching, but it was the Lions coaching staff who got the Easter chocolates at Cape Town.

The Lions narrowed their game up a bit for this one, more a case of adjusting to the occasion, rather getting conservative. Kriel, Whiteley, Marx, Moster and Ackermann were outstanding in the pack, but perhaps the guy who deserves the highest praise is Ross Cronje.

His passing is superior to Faf de Klerk, his general play was tidy and efficient and he asked a few questions around the fringes. He was a key to victory.

The Stormers didn’t make a lot of headway through their forwards with ball in hand, but Dillyn Leyds is looking in great form, and although he was largely kept in check at Newlands, SP Marais has really started to realise his potential this year.

This weekends game should bring the best out of both teams, and should be near test intensity.

Elsewhere the fare was pretty good.

The Blues again got themselves into a winnable situation against the Hurricanes, but just can’t find those big minutes that decide a game. They were also undone by the brilliance of Beauden Barrett, who is starting to draw comparisons with the likes of Christian Cullen. I’m not sure there is a better player in the world right now.

He just needs to stop getting his hands caught in the cookie jar, having been yellow-carded three ties now for a deliberate knock-on, and it’s started to look like some sort of compulsive disorder.

The game was played against a backdrop of controversy over Sonny Bill Williams, and his decision the previous week to cover over the logo of a sponsor, the BNZ (formerly Bank of New Zealand).

He did this because of his Muslim beliefs, which are essentially opposed to the profiting from lending money.

Something that should have been sorted out well before he ever took the field was not, and so he chose to tape over the logo, and when the reason emerged there was a storm of protest.

SBW is a magnet to such criticism, because of his high profile, because of his hopping from one code to another (which still riles rugby league supporters in particular) and I suspect sadly, with a minority of bigoted people, because he is a follower of Islam.

The criticism reached ridiculous levels, with a hail of judgement from everyone from the anonymous keyboard warriors, to the New Zealand Prime Minister, who offered an opinion right out of the 1950s.

The whole thing was tidied up pretty well, with Williams now wearing the logo of Plunkett, a non-profit organisation that does fantastic work with children. But it could have been avoided with proper communication, and to me, that is the full extent of his error.

Personally, I like the guy. I don’t know him well, but he is unfailingly polite and modest, not in the slightest big arrogant, and a terrific player. He was doing something he believes in, and compared to the antics of some of his contemporaries around the rugby world, nothing he did harmed the game, or any another person.

He is coming back from a long layoff, and was certainly a bit rusty at Eden Park, which only fueled the criticism, but I can’t imagine he is not figuring in plans for the Lions tour.

Of the other games, the Chiefs produced a stunning comeback against a brave Cheetahs side that, in the end, ran out of pop.

It could have been different had the Cheetahs nailed a gilt edged chance at 24-7 soon before halftime, a chance that ended when the ball was lobbed into the path of a retreating Liam Messam. Given that two forward passes had been missed/ignored in the movement it was probably a bit of rough justice, but that was probably the beginning of the end for the home team.

The Bulls managed to put the embarrassment of Tokyo behind them and won a messy contest over a Jaguares team that is starting to slip a bit, but at 12 points out of the wildcard spot, the Bulls still have a lot of ground to make up and some very good teams yet to play.

Things are hardly improving in Australia. The air is thick with insults, threats and a refusal to accept that a reduction to four teams is in the best interests of the game and the competition.

The Reds were good enough to see off the Kings, but it was something of a shock to see the Australian conference leaders, the Brumbies, fall under the bus in Melbourne, where the Rebels picked up their first win of the season despite having three players yellow-carded and scoring just one try to three.

It would have been different had the match officials reacted properly to a kick by number 8 Lopeti Timani that clipped the head of Brumbies lock Rory Arnold.

In keeping with tradition, Timani got four weeks when the “entry” level for such an offence is eight.

For some reason the Sanzar judiciary keep finding excuses not to punish such actions in accordance with the guidelines. If it had been in the UK, he would have got his 8 weeks, and some.


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