Stormers will face an onslaught in the finals
A surprisingly nervous victory over the Melbourne Rebels in the final round of the regular season earned South Africa’s Stormers the top spot on the Super Rugby ladder.
They deserve it. While other contenders for first place faltered at crucial moments, most notably the Chiefs in their last two games, the Stormers held characteristically firm all season and finished with more wins than any other side.
With guaranteed home ground advantage throughout the finals, the men from Cape Town should be considered favourites to claim their first Super Rugby title.
Newlands is an imposing venue for opposition teams to visit at the best of times, and the Stormers’ defence-centric strategy is ideal for knockout rugby. Any team wishing to best the South Africans will need to bring plenty of firepower onto the field.
There are three sides left in the competition who can boast that sort of menace in attack: the Chiefs, Reds and Crusaders.
If recent form is any indication, these same three teams will be left standing after tonight’s knockout matches. The Stormers would then need to defeat two of them in order to lift the trophy.
This task will be much tougher than those loyal fans at Newlands would like to think. The Crusaders are one of only two teams to have inflicted defeat upon the Stormers this season. That loss came in week eight of the competition, before the Cantabrians had truly begun to hit their straps.
Any side with the likes of Dan Carter, Robbie Fruean, Zac Guildford and Israel Dagg always has the potential to run riot.
We have no real idea how the Stormers and Chiefs would match-up, because they did not meet even once during the regular season. But the last time that these two teams occupied the same pitch, in Hamilton last year, the Chiefs took the points.
With no previous experience defending against Waikato’s potent backline combination of Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams, the Stormers’ defence could be handicapped going into a final.
Of course, the Reds in a bold mood are as difficult to contain as anyone. Should Queensland overrun their opposition to reach a decider in South Africa, the Stormers will face a side brimming with confidence and desperate to complete a successful title defence.
Any of these three teams would confront the Newlands faithful with a nerve-racking tossup, and I am not convinced that the Stormers will be able to emerge triumphantly from two close matches.
Their preparation for the finals has hardly been ideal. While their major rivals (excluding the Reds) have been steeling themselves in tight games against high quality opposition, the Stormers have been displaying surprisingly indifferent form against significantly weaker sides.
They may have finished on top of the log and they are deservedly favourites for the title. But a failure to improve upon their recent performances will result in the Stormers’ championship ambitions being ruthlessly swept aside.
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