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