A lot of talking’s been done about the Stormers this season, but the only talking of relevance will be what is produced on the field in their Super Rugby quarter-final.
The Stormers this time a year ago lost 60-21 to the Chiefs at the same stage of the competition.
Earlier this season the Stormers beat the Chiefs 34-26 in a high-octane brilliant rugby spectacle. It ranked as one of the matches of the season for drama, excitement, tries and skills.
The Stormers were on a high but then lost four matches in succession, firstly at home to the Lions and then all three tour matches to New Zealand.
The Stormers got back to winning ways against a 14-man Blues but then lost to the Sharks in Durban.
Post the international break the Stormers were in a great attacking form in beating the Cheetahs, Sunwolves and Bulls, but equally they coughed up plenty tries against teams ranked in the bottom five of the competition.
It’s on Saturday that the progress of Robbie Fleck’s Stormers will be judged, as much as their season could be defined.
The bookies have the Chiefs favourites and the Stormers’ woeful playoff record can’t be ignored. The Stormers have featured in eight Super Rugby playoff matches and lost seven times.
Fleck wasn’t interested in history when he spoke of the 2017 squad. The past was an uncontrollable, he said. The squad could control their season on Saturday. It was about Saturday and not what has gone before.
The Stormers this season have been a ‘two steps forward and two steps back’ kind of team. Just when you think they’ve matured as a team they produce a performance that asks too many questions and allows for too much conviction that not a heck of a lot has changed.
The Stormers this year have been true to the cliché that it takes just 80 minutes to break down a season. The Stormers were on a high after six successive early season wins. Their ball-in-hand off-loading game was being applauded, their conditioning was said to have improved and their attacking mindset was getting reward. The victories included a stunning upset of the Chiefs, but then a week later the Lions came to town and crushed the home team and every doubt about the Stormers resurfaced.
The doubts are still there and I don’t believe the Stormers in 2017 are good enough to win Super Rugby. They’re good enough to be a top eight team and if they progress past the quarter-final then the season would have been a success.
Victory against the Chiefs would confirm the improvement of 2016 with a tangible. It wouldn’t just be an opinion; it would be the ‘W’ in the results section.
The Chiefs will be more focused in the playoffs than was the case during the league fixture but I don’t believe the Chiefs are as a good as they were a season ago. They’re a team on the wane and their performance in the latter part of the year hasn’t quite matched the hype around their quality. They’ve been winning but not with the dominance of champions-in-waiting.
The Chiefs have very talented individuals, especially among the backs but their pack has been hit and miss all season. The Stormers have the pack to neutralise the visitors and in doing so nullify the potency of the Chiefs backs.
The Stormers, in numbers one to 15, are the equal of the Chiefs and in many positions are superior. It’s in the six inches upstairs that the Stormers have to answer their doubters. If the Stormers lose it will be more a case of them being mentally fragile than inferior as rugby players.
I have the Stormers to win the quarter-final and lose in an away semi-final.
I think the bookies, like the Kiwi critics, overestimate the quality of this Chiefs team. They’re not quite as good as everyone thinks.
The 60-21 defeat was an aberration and the match at Newlands earlier this year was a more accurate reflection of the two teams. The Stormers won but the Chiefs had chances to win. There wasn’t much in it and there won’t be much in it on Saturday. I have the Stormers to win by seven to 10 points, with exciting flyhalf Damian Willemse influential in the victory.
Willemse can only be as good as his pack’s performance, and it’s here where I think the Stormers have the edge.
Fleck couldn’t have asked for a better examination in determining the health of his squad. He gets to assess his team a year on, at the same venue and against the same opposition.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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