Will Handré Pollard dominate the goal-kicking duel, and can the smallest back corps in Super Rugby hold the line without powerful winger Kobus van Wyk?
These questions are the fluff that will be debated leading up to the South African Conference derby at Newlands on Saturday (kick-off 7.10pm).
And while the answers are likely to impact the result of a crunch match that may well alter the course of the season for both teams, they address small-picture matters that blur the bigger issue – are either of these sides capable of winning the Super Rugby title?
The steady regression in quality of the once-proud Currie Cup competition in recent years has quietly established Super Rugby’s SA Conference as the real measuring stick for domestic supremacy.
The Stormers were good enough to top the SA Conference in 2012 before being booted out of the ensuing Newlands semi-final by a travel-fatigued Sharks team that had just jetted in from beating the Reds in Brisbane. The Durbanites then dragged themselves off to Hamilton for a 37-6 hiding at the hands of the Chiefs.
The Bulls finished three log points ahead of the third-placed Brumbies in 2013, but three match points behind them in the Loftus Versfeld play-off. And last year, the SA champion Sharks were never going to beat the Crusaders in Christchurch for a second time in one season.
So, what difference does it make what happens at Newlands this week if the victor ultimately doesn’t have what it takes to beat a team like the Chiefs for all the marbles?
Well, for Stormers fans, there’s always the hope that their heroes will finally realise their potential by making winning a top priority.
For perhaps the first time in Super Rugby history, Newlands is home to the most potent scrum unit. A soft-serve tight five was primarily responsible for the Stormers crashing out of the 2011 and 2012 seasons at the penultimate hurdle, but the current set-piece juggernaut reinforces the competition’s best defensive system and, used properly, would give wings to a direct attacking game.
An efficient line-out contesting policy backs up proven kicking maps and Cheslin Kolbe, a lethal counter-attacking fullback, puts opposing teams under pressure to kick with precision.
These are all hallmarks of a championship side. But what does make the Stormers vulnerable is their reluctance to step out and announce they’re playing to win.
For years, the tactical and selection preferences of influencers outside the management team have been responsible for producing schizophrenic performances that see-saw between rugby that wins and rugby that entertains. Indeed, there is a balance between the two, but the bottom line is that unless the Stormers are dead certain that they want to win more than their opponents do, they won’t.
That certainty was vocalised by Vermeulen at the start of the season, but confidence in the approach was too easily shaken when the Chiefs marched out of Newlands with a 28-19 win in round five. A foray into a free-range attacking game cost them two more losses.
Coach Allister Coetzee likes to talk about “pitching up with attitude and physical intensity” but it takes more than that to win rugby’s highest-attrition regional competition. The Stormers know how to play smart rugby, but they have a wavering conviction. The Bulls unapologetically embraced a motto of “execution above innovation” and followed through to win three titles.
This is Coetzee’s final ride in the Stormers hot seat.
He can make history by leading this team to a championship, starting with the kind of slick victory over the Bulls at Newlands on Saturday that makes it clear the Stormers are past “learning lessons” and are single-minded about getting their hands on a trophy that matters. - The Star
Original source: Can Stormers put it all together?