Cape Town – So many teams being in roughly the same boat for mediocrity this year helps their relative current buoyancy.
But the Stormers will edge ominously closer to Super Rugby non-qualification for the knockout phase -- if so, for the second consecutive year -- should they suffer a sixth ordinary-season defeat at the hands of the Jaguares in Buenos Aires on Saturday (21:40 SA time).
That outcome would leave them with very little breathing space for further setbacks in their remaining, then five-strong conference-phase roster.
It is just possible they’d have to win them all, bearing in mind that in 2016, for example, compatriots the Bulls just failed to reach the knockouts despite suffering only a total of five losses -- the Stormers’ present tally.
That’s an extreme example, because there have also been cases of teams slipping into the playoffs with seven or even eight losses to their names (the Sharks somehow sneaked the cut with eight last year), but it is a reminder nevertheless that “concessions” are gradually drying up for the Stormers and others.
This is a difficult date for Robbie Fleck’s charges, and not just because South African wins in Argentina are increasingly rare: the Jaguares clean-swept their four SA conference rivals on home soil last season and boast an overall record of 10/15 at home to foes from our shores (66.6 percent, including matches so far in 2019) since entering the competition in 2016.
The Stormers may well be operating on collective reserve tank, too, given that they have not had a break for seven rounds and that spell includes a four-match tour of Australasia recently -- so this is an additional, major time-zones disturbance to their body clocks before a welcome bye next weekend.
Cranking up the pressure further on them to eke out this one is that their return to action will then be against the toughest opponents of them all: current leaders and defending champions the Crusaders at Newlands.
It is almost like their “Test match” as emotions run high in the Cape for that fixture, considering the remarkable support the ‘Saders command in the region.
The big fear for more nervously-inclined Stormers supporters is that their campaign might be all but declared dead in the water if both immediately looming games are surrendered, meaning every likelihood of depressingly low attendances for remaining home fixtures by the cash-challenged franchise against the Highlanders, Sunwolves and Sharks (plus Lions in Johannesburg).
Although Springbok pack members like franchise captain Siya Kolisi, Frans Malherbe (rotational rests) and Pieter-Steph du Toit (injured) haven’t made the South American trip, the Stormers have some timely returning figures and enough core personnel to be able to make a strong fight of it at the Estadio Jose Amalfitani.
The Stormers have only played the Jaguares twice previously away, winning the 2016 meeting 13-8, helped by a wonderful try from hot-stepping Cheslin Kolbe, and losing last year 25-14.
In many respects they will be playing for national pride, as well as their own intentions, given the steadily mounting threat that the Jaguares, for the first time, win the SA conference.
The Argentineans are firmly in the running for that, and will be just as desperate as their foes to secure victory this Saturday before heading off on their last tour of the season – games in Australasia against the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs and Reds before completing their roster with an attractive match on paper at home to the Sunwolves if they are still bidding for both the knockout phase and perhaps closing conference bragging rights.
For an array of reasons, Saturday’s clash could be no place for softies …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing