It would have been with mixed feelings that the Stormers players and coaching staff spent their Saturday afternoon off watching the television coverage of the Bulls annihilating the Blues in their Super 14 match in Pretoria.
While the Bulls showed that the Blues are definitely beatable and that the Stormers should start as favourites when they face the Blues in Cape Town on Saturday evening, the New Zealand team is also going to be significantly strengthened by the return of some key players. And they will also be smarting after their big defeat.
Gavin Rich writes in the Cape Argus that an even bigger problem though for the Stormers is the form of the Bulls. It is great to see another South African team doing so well, and the ease with which they smashed the Blues should provide encouragement for the looming battles with the New Zealand teams, but the Bulls will be the Stormers’ next opponents – at Loftus on Saturday week.
The Stormers, after losing at home to the Sharks, need to recover that loss by winning away from home. On the weekend’s evidence, a significant improvement is going to be needed if the Stormers can even dream about beating their traditional Pretoria rivals.
A week ago there appeared to be a faint glimmer of hope for the Stormers in that Victor Matfield will almost certainly be ruled out of the game – but it was not as if the Bulls appeared to miss Matfield against the Blues. At least they didn’t miss him in his onfield role, for he was sitting on the sidelines and offering leadership from there.
Whichever way you look at it, the Bulls result further ups the ante for the Stormers in a Blues game that was already going to be crucial to their Super 14 hopes. The narrow victory over the Reds, which was more comprehensive than the scoreline might suggest, has eased some of the pressure on the Stormers, but they need to follow up before they head into a two week sequence of local derbies against the Bulls and Lions (Newlands).
With this in mind, skipper Jean de Villiers was not prepared to look too far ahead when asked about the challenge that lies in wait in form of a difficult five match tour which includes two flights across the Tasman Sea from the middle of March.
“The tour is going to be an exciting challenge and fortunately we have a team that does enjoy touring and we have a good record away from home, but we are not going to be in contention in this competition if we don’t play well in the remaining games in South Africa over the next few weeks,” said De Villiers.
That is the reality, and after the encouragement offered last year, it won’t do for the Cape public to go back now to the pattern of previous seasons, where Easter arrived with the Stormers out of the competition race.
One ominous sign for the Stormers is that there were indications in the 59-26 Blues defeat to the Bulls that the Kiwis might all along have been targeting the Stormers match as the big one of their South African tour.
Blues coach Pat Lam made some strange selection changes for the Bulls match, where he did not conform to the usual trend of sticking with a winning combination after the victory against the Western Force.
All Black prop Tony Woodcock should be expected to return to the starting team after being benched at Loftus, while the excellent Jerome Kaino should add further substance to the pack.
Kaino, like the massive scrumhalf Taniela Moa, is back with the team after sitting out at Loftus after returning to New Zealand from Perth to be at the birth of their children. All Black wing Joe Rococoko is also expected to return, which should off-set the loss of the suspended Rene Ranger.
For the Stormers, the good news is that there are no injury problems, and Sireli Naqelevuki did make a difference when he returned to the team against the Reds.
But coach Rassie Erasmus again lamented his team’s tendency to play too much rugby in their own half, but at least this aspect was an improvement on the Sharks game.
The real problem for the Stormers may be that they are trying to do everything at 100 miles an hour. A short study of the videos of last season’s games should be enough to convince them that there isn’t any need to be quite so frenetic.Tweet