Ashfak Mohamed writes for the Cape Times that every year Stormers supporters get all excited as a new Super 14 season dawns. We hear of new signings, and how THIS is going to be the Stormers’ year. Fans pack into Newlands in big numbers every year and get behind their team.
We also hear of what a great coach the Stormers have in Rassie Erasmus, who has won a few Currie Cups with the Cheetahs and is a keen student and analyst of rugby. When Erasmus arrived in Cape Town during 2007, he was viewed as the man who was going to take Stormers rugby back to the top.
But when were they really at the top? Two semifinals since 1996 is all the Stormers have to show for their efforts over the years, in 1999 and 2004. That record equals the now-defunct Cats, who made the playoffs in 2000 and 2001.
The Stormers have had some diabolical seasons as well. Playing as Western Province, they ended 11th in the 1996 Super 12, and did not even qualify for the 1997 edition. Ninth in 1998, 2003 and 2005, 11th in 2006 and 10th in 2007. Not too flashy, is it?
In the intervening years, they were stuck in mid-table mediocrity, so one could argue that they are mere pretenders rather than genuine contenders in Super rugby. I think the fact that there have been some really top players in the team over the years, as well as Western Province’s strong tradition and successful background in Currie Cup rugby, has added to the hype.
Things improved last year as the Stormers recovered from a rocky start to eventually end fifth on the log, although they had enough chances to have made the semifinals. They played some fine rugby during the season, and it was their tour to Australia and New Zealand that kick-started their whole campaign.
We all know the success the Stormers achieved during that tour, and now they stand at a crossroads once again in a faraway land. Having won just two out of five matches on South African soil, the Stormers are behind the eight-ball. They will play five games on tour, including four of the leading teams in the tournament in the Crusaders, Waratahs, Brumbies and Hurricanes, as well as a plucky Highlanders outfit. The odds are stacked against them.
But this tour is an opportunity for the Stormers to show that they are genuine contenders for the title and not just also-rans. They have an outstanding captain and player in Jean de Villiers, an astute coach in Erasmus, some superb talent in Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Brits and Conrad Jantjes, among others, while they should still be on a high after thrashing the Lions two weekends ago.
Erasmus has also often spoken about the pressure the team face in Cape Town, with the expectations from the public and media a heavy burden. It should not be viewed as a negative, which it appears to be currently. But they are now away from home and do not have to deal with that pressure.
Erasmus also has, barring a few injuries, the squad that he wants on tour. Injured players such as Tonderai Chavhanga, who could join them in two weeks, tighthead prop Brok Harris, who was in good shape before he got injured in the build-up to the tournament, and star lock Andries Bekker, who may join the team for the last week, could still give the Stormers a boost in weeks to come.
The Stormers are also only five points behind the fourth-placed Chiefs and the Blues, in fifth. That’s only one bonus-point win. They now have the chance, starting with the Crusaders game on Saturday, to show that they are a formidable team capable of winning the title. Can they do it? Or is it the hype again? Let’s see…