There was a time not that long ago when everything was rosy at Newlands and the Stormers, having just beaten the defending champion Chiefs and the high-flying Brumbies, were happily ensconced as strong SuperRugby contenders.
But last weekend was a truly awful one for last year’s South African Conference winners as they crumbled before an under-strength Crusaders team and their own crowd was split down the middle, with allegations that the support for the visitors was way beyond the limits of decency. The Stormers team was booed when they stepped off the bus at their own stadium, were reportedly spat on and there were also reports of home team supporters being assaulted after the game.
The off-field clashes were bad enough, but once the Stormers were on the field, the lineout was a shambles, the scrum shaky and the attack virtually non-existent as they slumped to a 14-19 defeat that left them in 11th place on the log and trailing the Sharks by six points in the South African Conference.
Meanwhile, up in Bloemfontein, the Cheetahs were busy putting together an impressive 34-16 win over the Rebels. It was a record-equalling fourth successive win for the Central Franchise and it is difficult to imagine a bigger difference in the mood of two teams when the Stormers travel north to take on the Cheetahs on Saturday.
But as depressingly poor as the Stormers were against the Crusaders, they showed the previous weekend against the Brumbies that they are still equally capable of reaching great heights when they get it all together on the day.
Perhaps it was because the Brumbies gave them a very clear pointer of where to concentrate their efforts by all their talk of physicality before the match and the Stormers seemed rather vague in their game plan against the Crusaders, although even the best-laid plans will come to naught without any first-phase ball.
In previous years, the Cheetahs’ game has been based on all-out attack from even the most unpromising positions, but coach Naka Drotske has introduced a measure of selectivity now when it comes to spreading the ball wide, while the defence has been outstanding and the set-pieces solid.
Apart from the Cheetahs looking a better rounded outfit this year, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee also has injury problems to contend with.
Elton Jantjies has been named at flyhalf but has a badly bruised chest that may yet rule him out, while wing Gerhard van den Heever, flank Rynardt Elstadt and replacement lock Don Armand have succumbed to injury.
Up to now, there has been no pressure on the Cheetahs, but suddenly the expectation is growing and they can prove conclusively that their wonderful recent form has not just been a false dawn as they come up against one of the SuperRugby powerhouses.
Victory against the Stormers will lift the Cheetahs into the race for conference honours, in fact, they could top the South African section as the Sharks face their bogey team, the Crusaders.
But the Stormers have been knocked down, vilified and written off before. Their defence has remained phenomenal, heroic at times against the Crusaders, suggesting the attitude in the team is still good and Bloemfontein could well be the venue for their resurgence.
There has been speculation that the Crusaders might have poured all their resources and energies into winning at Newlands, but then again they have always found the Sharks a surprisingly soft touch, winning 14 of their 16 matches, including four at King’s Park. The average score is 32-22 to the New Zealanders.
A bye last weekend will ensure that the Sharks are well-rested, while the return of Jannie du Plessis at tighthead prop will give the home team considerable presence in a set-piece that has been a real strength for the Crusaders.
Sharks coach John Plumtree said this week that his team have also worked very hard to make sure that their lineout doesn’t suffer the same fate as the Stormers’, but much will also depend on the Natalians’ ability to win the collisions. Their loose trio of Keegan Daniel, Jacques Botes and Marcell Coetzee has a slightly lightweight look to it, and the injured Willem Alberts and Jean Deysel can’t return quickly enough.
Frans Steyn is back at fullback, where he should have much more space to attack, which the Sharks have the players to do with some success.
But they will not be beating the Crusaders unless they win the battle for possession up front. The Kiwis are also exceptionally clever in the legalised mess that makes up the rucks these days and, if they bring the same intensity and precise execution they displayed at Newlands, then the Sharks will be under pressure.
One feels the Sharks cannot afford to even be a bit off their game on Friday night, even though the Crusaders might not be as ferocious as they were in seeing off the Stormers.
The Southern Kings are the other local team in action as they take on the log-leading Brumbies in Canberra.
The Brumbies, after the hardship of flying back from their two matches in South Africa, produced perhaps the least impressive performance of their season last weekend in scraping past the mediocre Bulls, but the Australian front-runners can be expected to have regained the spark and clinical execution that saw them to the top of the standings.
The return of first-choice players like centre Pat McCabe, Fotu Auelua, the battering ram at eighthman, and Ben Alexander, the veteran prop, suggests coach Jake White is looking for the quick kill.
The rookie Kings have little protection against a slick Brumbies side if they fire on the night, save for the impressive tenacity they have shown in defence and some spirited attacking play that kept them in touch with the Hurricanes until the hour mark last weekend.
Springbok Waylon Murray starts at outside centre and will beef up the midfield, while the coaching staff are also managing their resources by playing hooker Bandise Maku, prop Kevin Buys, lock David Bulbring, loose forward Jacques Engelbrecht and scrumhalf Shaun Venter off the bench for the fourth match of their arduous five-week tour.
Southern Kings (v Brumbies, Friday 10:40): George Whitehead, Sergeal Petersen, Waylon Murray, Andries Strauss, Ronnie Cooke, Demetri Catrakilis, Nicolas Vergallo; Cornell du Preez, Wimpie van der Walt, Devin Oosthuizen, Rynier Bernardo, Steven Sykes, Grant Kemp, Hannes Franklin, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Bandise Maku, Kevin Buys, David Bulbring, Jacques Engelbrecht, Shaun Venter, Marcello Sampson, Elric van Vuuren.
Sharks (v Crusaders, Friday 19:10): Frans Steyn, Odwa Ndungane, Paul Jordaan, Meyer Bosman, JP Pietersen, Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Keegan Daniel, Marcell Coetzee, Jacques Botes, Franco van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jannie du Plessis, Kyle Cooper, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Craig Burden, Wiehahn Herbst, Anton Bresler, Ryan Kankowski, Charl McLeod, Riaan Viljoen, Louis Ludik/Sbura Sithole.
Cheetahs (v Stormers, Saturday 17:05pm): Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Burton Francis, Piet van Zyl, Phillip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne, Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Coenie Oosthuizen, Ligtoring Landman, Boom Prinsloo, Sarel Pretorius, Francois Brummer, Ryno Benjamin.
Stormers (v Cheetahs, Saturday 17:05pm): Jaco Taute, Joe Pietersen, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Gio Aplon, Elton Jantjies, Nic Groom, Duane Vermeulen, Michael Rhodes, Siya Kolisi, Andries Bekker, De Kock Steenkamp, Frans Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Martin Bezuidenhout, Pat Cilliers, Gerbrandt Grobler, Nizaam Carr, Louis Schreuder, Gary van Aswegen, Damian de Allende.
Friday: Blues v Highlanders (Auckland, 8:35)
Saturday: Hurricanes v Waratahs (Wellington, 8:35am); Force v Rebels (Perth, 10:40).
Byes: Bulls, Chiefs, Reds.