There are ben­e­fits to play­ing the Chiefs at New­lands that the Storm­ers can ex­ploit

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

THE way the Brumbies pushed the High­landers be­fore los­ing yes­ter­day’s open­ing Su­per Rugby quar­ter-fi­nal should be a source of en­cour­age­ment to the Storm­ers.

Al­though the High­landers got over the line, it was mighty close, and the Brumbies were per­haps un­for­tu­nate not to be awarded what could have been the win­ning try a few min­utes from time.

The Brumbies were far more com­pet­i­tive than was an­tic­i­pated, and it un­der­lined a few points about play­off rugby, per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant be­ing the im­por­tance of home­ground ad­van­tage in a knock­out fix­ture.

As well as the Brumbies played, it also looked as though the High­landers were a bit short of a gal­lop in com­par­i­son to the pre­vi­ous week, when they were in­volved in a bruis­ing derby against the Chiefs that was played at a fu­ri­ous pace and in­ten­sity.

Why this is all pos­i­tive for the Storm­ers is be­cause not only did the Chiefs have to fly across far more time zones to get to New­lands than the High­landers did to get to Can­berra, they could also be im­pacted like the High­landers by the tough­ness of the bru­tal Kiwi clash.

While no one would sug­gest the Storm­ers are a better all-round team than the Chiefs, and it is a joke that the New Zealan­ders have to play an away game if you con­sider how much tougher their con­fer­ence is, the hosts do have ad­van­tages to­day that they can ex­ploit.

And you can add ex­pec­ta­tion, or lack of it, to the list. The big dif­fer­ence be­tween to­day’s play­off and the oth­ers that have contributed to New­lands be­ing the most hos­pitable venue to vis­it­ing teams in Su­per Rugby knock­out fix­tures is that for once, the Storm­ers aren’t go­ing in as favourites.

In 2011, when they played their semi-fi­nal against the Cru­saders, the ex­pec­ta­tion was of a Storm­ers win. It was again the case the fol­low­ing year, when the Sharks trav­elled to Cape Town via Bris­bane.

Even in 2015, when the Brumbies thrashed them, there was more hope in the sense that the Storm­ers had beaten the Brumbies in the league phase of the sea­son.

Just why the Storm­ers should be better off play­ing as un­der­dogs in an away play­off is dif­fi­cult to fathom. Per­haps part of it is rooted in the fa­nati­cism of the Cape rugby pub­lic, and the pres­sure that the ex­pec­ta­tion and the at­ten­dant mas­sive pub­lic­ity of the game brings.

I reckon that was even a fac­tor when the Spring­boks lost at New­lands in the first Test of the Al­lis­ter Coet­zee era.

But re­gard­less of what con­spires to make it so, it is that the most sig­nif­i­cant play­off tri­umph for the Cape side in re­cent times came when they were play­ing as West­ern Prov­ince in a 2012 Cur­rie Cup fi­nal against the Sharks in Dur­ban.

They went to Kings Park sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­strength and with no ex­pec­ta­tion, yet scored a memorable win. The fol­low­ing year they started as strong favourites against the same team, this time at New­lands, and they were out­played.

The Storm­ers are a young team who have in­ex­pe­ri­enced parts to them, so de­feat to­day would not be rea­son for ev­ery­one to go into mourn­ing. The im­pact on the Storm­ers of not hav­ing played any Kiwi op­po­si­tion is one of to­day’s big im­pon­der­ables. They’re go­ing into the un­known, but also have nothing to lose against a Chiefs team who looked al­most cer­tain to fin­ish in the top two for most of the sea­son.

There are good rea­sons why the Chiefs start as favourites. Their back­line is just so much better-equipped than the Storm­ers. But in ad­di­tion to be­ing at home and play­ing as un­der­dogs, the Storm­ers also have some­thing that should give any team a chance of win­ning any game they play. Namely a po­ten­tially awe­some pack.

Per­haps one of the big­gest pos­i­tives for the Storm­ers on their tour of Aus­tralia was the way they un­der­lined where their strength lays. As al­ways, the Storm­ers will talk up their de­sire to play crowd-pleas­ing rugby, but in re­al­ity their best chance of win­ning to­day is for the for­wards to dom­i­nate and to chan­nel their chal­lenge through the big men.

The omis­sion from the start­ing team of Oli Keb­ble came as a sur­prise. But these days, rugby matches are con­tested by 23 men, not 15, and the Storm­ers have enor­mous for­ward depth on their bench. It could make the dif­fer­ence be­tween win­ning and los­ing.

A par­tic­u­larly ap­petis­ing duel to­day will be that be­tween the two sets of locks. The home duo of Eben Etze­beth and Pi­eter-Steph du Toit are world­class, but Brodie Re­tal­lick and Do­minic Bird are top-qual­ity too. Which­ever com­bi­na­tion gets the better of their op­po­nents will have a sig­nif­i­cant bear­ing on the out­come.

The pres­sure, though, will be on the Storm­ers tight five to dom­i­nate. You get the sense that par­ity won’t be enough, for the Chiefs look stronger in most other areas of the game, in­clud­ing ar­guably the back row.

Rain could have an im­pact, but if the match is played in dry con­di­tions the Chiefs will have too much in their ar­moury for the Storm­ers if the vis­it­ing pack is able to front the home unit.

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