Cape Town – Do the Stormers finally have what it takes to win the Super Rugby title for the first time in 2016? The next three weekends ought to offer particularly educative clues.
They have been pretty consistently South Africa’s best challengers in recent years, but always fallen short of the elusive main prize.
Already the pace-setters in newly-structured Africa Conference 1 with two wins from two and a five-point cushion over the Bulls, the jury is probably out about their silverware credentials this season, given that they will face tougher hurdles, with respect, than the already-beaten, rebuilding Pretoria outfit and last Saturday’s victims of their slight superiority in Bloemfontein, the Cheetahs.
Both derbies saw the Capetonians play well in patches – handily, these periods tended to be nearer the key business end – but also not quite produce enough wow-factor to shout “genuine title-chasers”.
Saturday’s tantalising Newlands meeting with the Sharks, fractional leaders from the Lions in Africa Conference 2, will naturally also offer a solid indicator of the visitors’ own trophy-quest mettle in 2016, although the Sharks have an unrelentingly tough draw this year and few spells, frankly, where matches get noticeably easier or more difficult for them.
It is rather different for the Stormers, who will have made immense strides toward a guaranteed home quarter-final if they can prosper in the next three consecutive rounds of an exceedingly kind roster on paper this year.
That is because they now enter what is probably their most taxing, intense stint of the entire ordinary season --- Sharks (home), then Brumbies (home) and Jaguares (away) ahead of the relief of a timely bye.
Put it this way: if they can win, say, two of that trio of matches, they will already be on a very firm footing for the last eight of the competition. Three would be nirvana!
At the same time, none of those foes can be taken lightly, particularly with the Brumbies looking the most convincing of all sides over the first two rounds with sizeable wins over the Hurricanes and Waratahs respectively – a big early statement of their wish to win back the Super Rugby crown for the first time since 2004.
Once they have treated the bruises from the Newlands encounters with the Sharks and Brumbies, the Stormers undergo the first of their three agreeably short overseas treks, tackling the new Argentinean franchise in their own Buenos Aires stronghold in a once-off before returning to home pastures again.
They will not be too hugely daunted by much later travels to Singapore (Sunwolves) and then Australia to play the beatable Rebels and Force.
Getting some decent results over the looming three weekends will not only stiffen their title aspirations and send a wave of extra confidence through the squad ranks, but have them in a strong conference position ahead of the anticipated return to fitness of backline kingpin Damian de Allende.
The Springbok midfielder, coach Robbie Fleck pretty confidently stated recently, should be available in time for the crunch encounter with the Lions in Johannesburg on April 16; they are already missing his undoubted X-factor.
One potential hazard over the course of the imminent roster against the Sharks, Brumbies and Jaguares is that at some point during this illustrative period their most treasured tight forward Eben Etzebeth will be forced to sit out a game, in terms of the agreement with SA Rugby over blue-chip Boks not playing five fixtures in succession.
The abrasive, in-form lock has already started against both the Bulls and Cheetahs, and it is highly unlikely Fleck will rest him for the challenge of their coastal arch-rivals on Saturday, leaving a choice between the other two games for a reluctant sit-out …
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