An overhauled format has facilitated Super Rugby’s expansion to an 18-team tournament and, for once, the Stormers have benefitted from such change.
Gone are the arduous four-match tours to the Antipodes that impeded the South African challengers, while an expanded playoff design has paved the way to the knockout rounds for up to three teams from these shores.
Robbie Fleck’s goal of making a success of his first season as a senior professional head coach has been made especially easy to achieve because the Stormers have been spared from having to front up to any of their New Zealand rivals in the league phase of the competition.
This is a breath-taking reprieve given that the Highlanders and Hurricanes contested the 2015 final, the Chiefs won two of the three titles preceding that, and the Crusaders and Blues accounted for 10 of the remaining 16 championships.
The Stormers will instead face the five Australian sides, and this bonus is compounded by the fact that three of those matches will be played in Cape Town, while the two road games are against the lowly Western Force and Melbourne Rebels when the competition resumes after the June Test interval.
Drawn in Africa Conference 1, the Stormers play the Bulls, Cheetahs and Sunwolves, home and away, and one match against Africa Conference 2 opponents the Sharks, Lions, Kings and Jaguares.
After corralling the Bulls at Newlands on February 27, the Stormers will bookend visits from the Sharks and Brumbies with trips to Bloemfontein and Argentina in rounds two and five respectively.
The first of those two trips will be the easier. First-season Cheetahs Super Rugby coach, Franco Smith is at the helm of a team loaded with the no-namers left behind after Springboks Heinrich Brussow, Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks and Coenie Oosthuizen cleared out their lockers last year.
Buenos Aires is destined to be a killzone for touring teams. The Jaguares are effectively the Pumas reskinned, and Raul Perez’s side is teeming with Test-calibre predators, such as captain Agustin Creevy, wing Santiago Cordero and loose forward Juan Manuel Leguizamon.
But the Stormers will arrive at Ministro Pistarini International Airport with a Kamikaze mindset, ready to throw everything at the Jaguares in the knowledge that a bye awaits them in round six.
That attitude is what will likely make the Sunwolves difficult to contend with in round seven. Japan’s inaugural Super Rugby participants lack firepower, experience and organisation, but that was true of the Southern Kings in 2013 and they held the Brumbies to a draw in Canberra and beat the Rebels in Melbourne.
The Stormers then hunt the Lions on the Highveld, no doubt eager to avenge last year’s draw at Newlands, before returning to host the Reds and Waratahs leading up to round 11 and their second week off.
The return match against the Sunwolves will take place in Singapore, followed by a showdown with the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld and a scrap with the Cheetahs at Newlands on May 28.
Super Rugby goes on holiday in June as the tournament’s top venues host incoming tours from Northern Hemisphere nations. It’s back to business in July and Fleck will want to harvest maximum log points from the expedition to Perth and Melbourne, and the season-finale against the visiting Kings.
Feb 27: Bulls
Mar 5: Cheetahs (A)
Mar 12: Sharks
Mar 19: Brumbies
Mar 26: Jaguares (A)
Apr 8: Sunwolves
Apr 16: Lions (A)
Apr 23: Reds
Apr 30: Waratahs
May 14: Sunwolves (A)
May 21: Bulls (A)
May 28: Cheetahs
Jul 2: Rebels (A)
Jul 9: Force (A)
Jul 16: Kings - Weekend Argus
Original source: Kind draw for Stormers coach