Preview: Stormers vs Sharks
Will lightning strike twice when the Stormers host the Sharks in Saturday’s Super Rugby semi-final at Newlands?
That’s one of several questions that will be answered this weekend as South Africa’s two top teams wage war for the third and final time this season to settle the score and book their place in the Super Rugby final.
Precious little separated the sides all season with each holding a win over the other. The Stormers edged their coastal rivals 15-12 in Cape Town in Round Two with the Sharks exacting revenge in the return fixture in Durban, prevailing 25-20 in a memorable Round 14 encounter.
The visitors will be the underdogs despite their heroic performance in Brisbane and herein lays the question – will the Sharks be able to overcome the travel bogey and defy the odds for the second straight week?
To keep their title aspirations alive they will have to do something that no side have accomplished this season, topple the Stormers at Newlands. It’s a tall order and one, when looking at the bigger picture, forms part of a nigh impossible mission.
As sublime and spectacular as the Sharks were at the weekend, conquering the Reds in Brisbane, Stormers in Cape Town and either the Chiefs or Crusaders in New Zealand in consecutive weeks is too much to ask from any side.
The Stormers are realistically South Africa’s best bet, having positioned themselves for a home semi and possible home final due largely to their near impregnable defence.
Their watertight defensive structures will once again be tested by the free-roaming Sharks, who breached their line on three occasions in their last meeting, as will their suspect big match temperament.
For all their promise, the men from the Cape are yet to shake their chokers-tag and win the big one, a fact that will be played up by opposing sides ad nauseam until the bogey is finally buried.
The Sharks will certainly feed off this mental frailty in the Stormers’ make up and will be well aware that the pressure is squarely on the hosts to come good.
Adding to the intrigue of this weekend’s semi-finals is the 75 per cent chance of maiden champions being crowned, with the Stormers, Sharks and Chiefs all eager to emulate the feats of the Crusaders, Blues, Bulls, Brumbies and Reds and lift the Super Rugby trophy aloft.
Home ground advantage, as history attests, is key in finals rugby and points to a Stormers-Chiefs final at Newlands next weekend. The Sharks and seven-time champion Crusaders, however, will have other ideas.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee is wary of the threat the visitors pose. “They are the in-form side – they have gone across to Australia and beaten the reigning champions, which says a lot about the Sharks,” he said.
“They are a team that can play the big matches and they will rock up here with a lot of confidence, but I can assure you that our preparations have gone well.”
“All derby games are tough and close matches and I suppose this play-off game will also be a close one,” said Coetzee.
“With that big pack of theirs which has a lot of Boks I am sure they will come and try and assert their authority from the word go. But I don't think it is just about the scrum for us, it is about a lot of battles across the field.
“They thrive on go-forward ball. Getting players to run on to the ball is the way they play. I think they have also made a step up in terms of their physicality.
“You could see that they really got stuck into the Reds and they really couldn't handle that. That creates that go-forward and they love playing off that front-foot ball.”
John Plumtree, coach of the Sharks, said his team knows what to expect from the back-to-back South African Conference winners.
“They don’t change too much in what they do, but what they do is really efficient,” said Plumtree.
“They work really hard defensively – their defence is a wall that’s hard to break down. Furthermore their lineout is really big, they almost have an unfair advantage with some monsters there, their set-piece is something they rely on, they gain a lot of confidence out of winning a territory game, they don’t mind kicking out because they attack the opposition lineout.
“There are trends about them that are really consistent. They have a real belief in what they do, their leadership is clearly very strong because they get out there and play consistent rugby each week, that’s why they finished top, that’s why they’re in a situation where, if they beat us, they get a home final.
“They also feed off the fact that they have a lot of good players but don’t have as many Boks as some of the other teams. That motivates them as well.”
Key Battle: There are key clashes across the spread. The kicking duel between Peter Grant and Frederic Michalak could be decisive.
Grant has been successful with 45 from 48 attempts at goal this season - a very impressive 94%, while Michalak is not far behind, with 31 from 37 (84%).
Then there’s the battle between Bok speedsters Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen.
Habana, who has scored three tries in semi-finals and four in finals, is currently on seven tries in knockout matches, the same as former Brumbies speedster Joe Roff. A try on Saturday would thus make him the top try-scorer in the history of Super Rugby play-offs.
However, the confrontation that will have the greatest impact on the outcome of the match, as is often the case in South African derbies, is that of front row versus front row.
It all starts up front, and in finals rugby - more than ever - the gainline battle is crucial. Which ever trio provides front foot ball for their halves and front up on defence, pinning ball-carriers behind the advantage line, will likely be on the winning side.
Last Meeting: Sharks 25-20 Stormers (Durban).
Prediction: While it’s certainly not impossible for the Sharks to get the job done one feels it’s implausible. Not that the Sharks won’t fancy their chances.
It is, after all, a short trip to Cape Town compared to travelling to Australasia and they are riding a wave of momentum after their impressive win over the Reds.
The Stormers have had a week to rest but might struggle to match the Sharks’ fluidity in the opening quarter. Ultimately, we feel the Stormers’ conservative game plan is tailor-made for play-off rugby and will see them grind out a hard-fought five-point win.
Saturday 28 July: Stormers vs. Sharks, Cape Town (17:05)
Stormers: 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jean de Villiers (captain), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Deon Fourie, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Frans Malherbe, 17 Deon Carstens, 18 De Kock Steenkamp, 19 Don Armand, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Burton Francis, 22 Gerhard van den Heever.
Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Tim Whitehead, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (captain), 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Willem Alberts, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Steven Sykes, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Jacques Botes, 21 Odwa Ndungane, 22 Riaan Viljoen.
Stormers in Super Rugby play-offs:
Won: 1 (semi-final)
Lost: 4 (3 semi-finals, 1 final)
Sharks in Super Rugby play-offs:
Won: 4 (3 semi-finals, 1 qualifier)
Lost: 7 (3 finals, 3 semi-finals and 1 qualifier)
Stormers in 2012:
R1: beat Hurricanes 39-26 (Cape Town)
R2: beat Sharks 15-12 (Cape Town)
R4: beat Blues 27-17 (Cape Town)
R5: beat Lions 24-19 (Johannesburg)
R6: beat Bulls 20-17 (Cape Town)
R7: beat Highlanders 21-6 (Dunedin)
R8: lost to Crusaders 24-31 (Christchurch)
R9: beat Reds 23-13 (Brisbane)
R10: beat Force 17-3 (Perth)
R12: beat Cheetahs 16-14 (Cape Town)
R13: beat Waratahs 19-13 (Cape Town)
R14: lost to Sharks 20-25 (Durban)
R15: beat Bulls 19-14 (Pretoria)
R16: beat Lions 27-17 (Cape Town)
R17: beat Cheetahs 13-6 (Bloemfontein)
R18: beat Rebels 26-21 (Cape Town)
Sharks in 2012:
R1: lost to Vodacom Bulls 13-18 (Pretoria)
R2: lost to DHL Stormers 12-15 (Cape Town)
R3: beat MTN Lions 32-20 (Durban)
R4: beat Reds 27-22 (Durban)
R5: lost to Waratahs 30-34 (Sydney)
R6: beat Brumbies 29-26 (Canberra)
R7: lost to Hurricanes 18-42 (Wellington)
R8: beat Blues 29-23 (Auckland)
R9: lost to Chiefs 12-18 (Durban)
R11: beat Highlanders 28-16 (Durban)
R12: beat Force 53-11 (Durban)
R13: beat Toyota Cheetahs 34-20 (Bloemfontein)
R14: beat Stormers 25-20 (Durban)
R15: lost to MTN Lions 28-38 (Johannesburg)
R17: beat Vodacom Bulls 32-10 (Durban)
R18: beat Toyota Cheetahs 34-15 (Durban)
Qual: beat Reds 30-17 (Brisbane)