It doesn’t get bigger than Stormers v Bulls
Nobodby will do anybody favours in a North-south derby
FORGET the different log positions and markedly contrasting outlook and overall aims of the two teams contesting tonight’s big Super Rugby derby at Newlands.
This match does matter, and it matters as much to the Stormers as it does to the Bulls.
That might sound ludicrous if you consider the Stormers are definitely playing their last match today while the Bulls will be in action in a semi-final a fortnight from now.
After all, we keep hearing the Stormers are playing for pride, which normally is another way of saying that they have nothing to lose and also not a heck of a lot to aim at.
But this is the Stormers against the Bulls, a traditional clash between south and north. It’s one of the big occasions of the rugby season, and even though the double round of derbies may have taken a smidgen of the novelty away as the two sides have already met once this season already, it stands on its own, completely separate from Super Rugby.
Seeing their team win will mean a lot for the Newlands faithful, just as the Loftus fans would have been willing their team to win were the roles of today reversed and it was the Cape team going to Pretoria as title contenders and the hosts lining up as the already vanquished.
It’s why there will be a full house today, and it’s also why the Stormers don’t have to feel embarrassed, as they have sometimes appeared to be at press conferences this week, that they have an intense desire to win.
Jean de Villiers knows he and his team owe the fans something after the disappointing way the season has turned out, and what better way to make up for the heart-ache, most of which has admittedly come during this campaign away from Newlands, by beating the old enemy?
That such a result may prevent the Bulls from finishing at the top of the log, and robbing South Africa of a possible home final, is hardly the Stormers’ fault.
It’s just the way the competition works, it’s just the way sport works. And sport is made special by longstanding and passionate rivalries that capture the imagination and draw in the supporters as much as they do the participants.
Liverpool supporters should not feel aggrieved at this mention – for I am one of them – but the English football team has long since slipped from its former position of eminence that it enjoyed when the big rivalry with Manchester United started.
But that their team is invariably lagging far behind their biggest opponents on the log has never stopped fans from going to Anfield desperate to win the big game of the season.
And the fact that United will probably go on to win the league while Liverpool will, at best, maybe just make it into the Champions League, doesn’t stop them from enjoying the bragging rights afterwards.
It will be like that today if the Stormers win.
So who will win this classic confrontation between the old rivals? The biggest thing in favour of the Bulls is what they’re playing for.
A win means they don’t have to fly in the play-off phases. And they have momentum, after not having lost since they were overseas in March.
The Bulls are deserving of the status of local champions, which they are after winning the conference. Forget the Currie Cup, for that is now played mostly with understrength teams. Super Rugby is the real deal, for to make it to the conference title, you have to come top of a league that is decided over 16 matches against teams playing at full strength.
But while the Bulls have been showing their championship qualities, and proved their BMT in winning a close one they should really have lost against the Sharks last week, they have started to creak just a bit in recent weeks as the injury plague that has bothered the Stormers finally hits them.
They have also lost lineout kingpin Juandre Kruger to an early departure for France.
The Stormers, as they line up, don’t look anything like the team they would be at full-strength, but they’ve built up a good vein of form over the past few weeks and their recent record of four consecutive wins puts them up among the form teams in the competition. They’ve only lost once at Newlands this season, to the Crusaders.
They’ve seen off, among others, the two New Zealand and Australian conference winners, the Chiefs and Brumbies respectively, and if they beat the Bulls today, they will make it a trifecta.
That is both an indication of their inconsistency this season and their capabilities, and it means they definitely have a chance of winning.
The Stormers scrum has come good over the past two months and will be looking to exploit potential chinks in a Bulls unit that has struggled from time to time, but the difference between the teams could well be Bulls flyhalf Morné Steyn.
Young Gary van Aswegen is a capable player but hasn’t played a high intensity game for a while.
The Bulls would have learned lessons last week, when they conceded too many penalties at the breakdown, and opportunities for the Stormers may be few and far between.
There will be a pressure on Van Aswegen to take them when they come, for Steyn is unlikely to miss.
GIVING NOTHING AWAY: Gary van Aswegen and his Stormers’ colleagues won’t be doing the Bulls any favours today at Newlands.