It is not just the two teams topping the South African conference pools, the Stormers and the Lions, who will be subjected to some searching questions about where they stand in terms of the challenge for the overall Super Rugby title when they host the Waratahs and the Hurricanes respectively. The matches in Johannesburg and Cape Town will also provide us with a much-needed gauge of the progress of the new game everyone is talking about.
And because the Lions have been on the path that the others talk about for four or five years, and will be up against a New Zealand team, perhaps it is the match in Joburg that should win by a short head in terms of relevance to the national barometer.
I suspect the Stormers may have to employ many aspects of their “clever” strategy that beat the Brumbies six weeks ago. There is one big reason, and you’ll have to excuse the pun, why the Stormers can carry the ball more today than they did that day, and it is the presence of the sizeable frame of Damian de Allende in the midfield.
But I’d be surprised if the Stormers were as expansive against the Waratahs as the Lions are likely to be against the Hurricanes. The Lions are the standard-bearers most local teams are aspiring to, and because they are building on a platform that was laid by a Kiwi five or six years ago, they are the closest to the finished article.
With the exception of their win over the Chiefs early in the competition when the current tournament front-runners were in a transitioning phase, they still have it all to do in terms of showing both us and themselves that they can enjoy the same success playing it their way against the top New Zealand teams as they do when they play the other local sides.
They’ve looked good over the past few weeks in dispatching the Sharks, Stormers and the Southern Kings, but the last time they played an overseas team it was the Crusaders at Ellis Park. The end margin of the Crusaders victory wasn’t that large because the Lions did rally late on when effectively the contest was over, but in reality they were well-beaten. And the point to be stressed there is that they lost it on their homeground.
The Lions can’t afford to lose two home matches on the trot to New Zealand teams if they A) hope to be confident of winning playoff games, and B) hope to be an advert for what South African sides can do by embracing a more expansive approach.
Unfortunately, their chances of making the statement that many of their countrymen will be hoping for were dealt a hammer blow by the front-row injuries they have suffered in the past two weeks.
Young Dylan Smith has been outstanding at loosehead this season, but Malcolm Marx, Julian Redelinghuys, Ruan Dreyer and Robbie Coetzee are among their injured front-row forwards, and that means they just don’t have the depth in their matchday squad that has been a key to their earlier success.
For the Lions game to get going they have to rely heavily on a strong scrum platform. They need go-forward ball, and the scrum unit has been at the forefront of their winning drive. Perhaps the replacements will step up today. They will have to, for my money says that for all the progress the Lions may have made towards becoming a competent running team, the Hurricanes will still be superior to them in those areas of the game that will come into play if the Kiwis are not set onto the back foot in the scrums.
It will be interesting to see what game the Stormers employ against the Waratahs. Last year, they convincingly beat today’s opponents in their own Sydney backyard mainly because their opponents tried to run everything. I recall the word naïve appearing in the headlines in reference to the Waratahs after that match, and it was apt.
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck agrees the Waratahs tried “to force too much” a year ago, and he’s expecting a more strategical and balanced approach from them. If that is the case, Saturday night’s game could be an interesting battle of wits between two teams that are in some ways in a similar stage of development.
A lot could depend on which Waratahs team pitches. They looked to have turned the corner against the Western Force last week, but before that they were decidedly average, which is probably the word you can use to describe how the Brumbies have done since their visit here. They had excelled before that, and it is almost as if the Stormers burst their bubble. The Tahs will be looking to make today a watershed in a positive way.
The Australian teams generally haven’t been great this year, which is why Ellis Park might have a tad more relevance from a national viewpoint.
Original source: Ellis Park is where SA’s standard will be tested