A place in the semi-finals and maybe even home ground advantage will be up for grabs when the Stormers travel to Durban this weekend for their Super 14 derby clash with the Sharks.
Gavin Rich – Sport24
With a four point advantage on the third and fourth placed Crusaders and Reds, and a points differential that is way superior to any other team in the competition, a win over the Sharks for the Stormers should make it nigh impossible for them to be displaced from the top four.
But coach Allister Coetzee and captain Schalk Burger, like they have all season, were refusing after Friday’s thumping 42-14 win over the Crusaders to look too far ahead – and the message that came across crystal clear was that “Our next mission is just to beat the Sharks, the rest can take care of itself”.
It is possible the Stormers might have to do that without the services of brilliant Springbok left wing Bryan Habana, who came off with bruised ribs against the Crusaders.
“You know what it is like with ribs, you need to give a bit of time for the swelling to go down before you can assess the full extent of the injury. We will be looking at Bryan at the start of next week,” said Coetzee.
Rib injuries do take a while to recover from, and if the bad news is confirmed on Monday, it will leave the Stormers with a problem in trying to find a replacement. Tim Whitehead did well there as a replacement against the Crusaders, and must come into consideration, but he is a specialist inside centre and starting a game in an unfamiliar position can be very different to moving there during the match.
The other contenders would be Frikkie Welsh, who is defensively sound but challenged for pace, and former Cheetahs star Fabian Juries. It will all depend on what the Stormers decide they need against the Sharks, who are now officially out of the competition following their defeat at the hands of the Bulls.
Where Habana could be missed against the Sharks, apart obviously from his high work-rate, the pressure he applies in chasing kicks and the threat he poses with his pace in allround play, is his experience.
The experience brought by Habana and Jaque Fourie has been one of the keys to the Stormers’ turn-around this season, with both players’ experience in being part of title winning efforts (Habana with the Bulls and Boks, Fourie with the Boks) being drawn on.
Hopefully for the Stormers Habana will be back soon for his experience of winning play-off games with the Bulls could become crucial when that phase of the competition arrives in three weeks time.
A play-off game started to look a realistic prospect when the Stormers destroyed the Crusaders, their fifth consecutive big win over New Zealand teams in this year’s competition, a first for a South African side.
“We played with nice intensity and the first half was as tough as any game I have played in, the Crusaders really came at us,” said Burger.
“I felt we started to gain the advantage in the second half of the first half and started to wear them down by holding onto the ball and creating pressure. I am proud of the boys for the way we played, but I am not going to get ahead of myself. We are not looking beyond the Sharks and we just need to keep winning.”
Coetzee described the Crusaders game as “mission accomplished” as the Stormers picked up four log points and denied the Crusaders a bonus point. But he stressed his team had not won anything yet and the Sharks match would demand similar intensity as had been produced against Crusaders.
“Our focus switches to the Sharks, and the important thing is that our destiny is in our own hands. I would rank this game as one of our best performances of the season, but we must back it up with another one next week,” said Coetzee.
“I am happy with the way the team are playing, and with the way we responded to the defeat to the Reds in Brisbane. To beat the Crusaders you have to bring the physical intensity, and that has now become a given with the Stormers. The boys were put under early pressure by the (Dan Carter) try, but they held their nerve.
“Next comes the Sharks. We must just make sure we have 22 fresh players and are able to pitch up with the right intensity in Durban next Saturday.”