The Stormers have higher, far more treacherous mountains to climb than the picturesque hill near Newlands on Saturday. Ranked against them will be a crocked list that is as long as a teamsheet, their fans and the Reds – a side that has a strong pack and a potent attacking backline.
Oh, and if they lose there’s the possible purgatory of a promotion/relegation match against the Lions to look forward to.
Stormers supporters, their emotions coloured by all the recent success their team has enjoyed, are fearing the worst as their team take on the Reds in a crunch Vodacom SuperRugby encounter at Newlands on Saturday.
Coach Allister Coetzee, who delivered a long-awaited Currie Cup triumph last year as well as making the Stormers the most consistent South African team in SuperRugby over the last three years, is suddenly under enormous pressure after three successive losses overseas and a last-place finish in the Conference and an embarrassing – and potentially devastating – promotion/relegation match against the Lions now a possibility.
And to make matters worse, Coetzee now has to steer his side back to winning ways with a number of key players out injured.
Schalk Burger, Deon Carstens, De Kock Steenkamp, Michael Rhodes, Peter Grant, Jaco Taute and Ruan Botha have all been long-term injury losses, but in the last couple of weeks the coach has had to add Pat Cilliers, Frans Malherbe, Scarra Ntubeni, Deon Fourie, Andries Bekker, Rynhardt Elstadt, Duane Vermeulen and Juan de Jongh to the crocked list.
And so the Stormers go into the match against the Reds, a side that has a strong pack of forwards and a potent attacking backline, with several inexperienced SuperRugby campaigners trying to protect a six-point lead over the Southern Kings.
Damian de Allende, Nizaam Carr, Don Armand and Gerbrandt Grobler are all in the starting line-up despite still trying to find their feet at this level, and there are even more fresh faces on the bench with Martin Bezuidenhout, Chris Heiberg, Lions import Marius Coetzer, Rohan Kitshoff and Gary van Aswegen charged with making an impact.
One man who is not scared of all this youthfulness, however, is Stormers and Springbok captain Jean de Villiers.
“We have new players coming in and that’s exciting as it means there are players being presented with opportunities to stake a claim. I spoke to Chris Heiberg, a club player, and asked him if he would ever have dreamed he would be playing SuperRugby for the Stormers this year.
“This is his chance to play himself into the mix as a professional rugby player, it really is a big opportunity for him, and he is not the only player who is in that position this week. That is why I am excited about this team,” said De Villiers.
But most neutrals would agree that the Reds will probably offer more excitement on Saturday and flyhalf Quade Cooper could be a man on a mission after he was left out of the initial Wallabies squad to play the British & Irish Lions.
While the Stormers are battling just to stay off the bottom of the Conference, the Bulls are at the other end of the scale and could make themselves basically unopposed for the top spot if they beat the Sharks in Durban and the Cheetahs lose to the Kings in Port Elizabeth.
The Sharks will no doubt be relieved to be back at King’s Park after a torrid tour left them 10th on the log, but a misfiring attack makes one wonder how they are actually going to hurt the Bulls should the forward exchanges go their way.
Wing Piet Lindeque is now at outside centre after the Sharks lost yet another Springbok to injury in JP Pietersen, but the Bulls have often suffered at the hands of Pat Lambie and the incumbent Springbok flyhalf will be eager to build on the slowly-improving form he showed overseas.
The talk in Durban is that the Bulls are in for another of the Sharks’ surprises as the announced team is rumoured not to be the one that will take the field. The experience of Bismarck du Plessis and Butch James could yet feature on the teamsheet, even though coach John Plumtree did not announce them in the 22-man squad, saying that the injuries that have kept them out of the whole campaign thus far were still not quite right.
Be that as it may, the Sharks, with Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira back at loosehead prop, have the pack to match the Bulls. The lineouts will be an especially tough arena of battle as Franco van der Merwe and Pieter-Steph du Toit go up against Juandré Kruger and Flip van der Merwe; the quartet are all in the plans of Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer.
Keegan Daniel, who showed his character by leading the Sharks to victory over the Western Force after a horrible week for him personally, is another who usually lifts his game against the Bulls and he will have top-class flanks alongside him in Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee.
But the Bulls are a settled, confident and in-form side and a tight contest is tailor-made for Morné Steyn to play a match-winning hand.
The exciting Francois Hougaard gets a second chance to start at scrumhalf after a disappointing outing last weekend, but it’s the strategic brilliance of Steyn that is more likely to win the Bulls a tough derby contest.
Another vastly experienced stalwart returns in Wynand Olivier and he will form a steely defensive alliance with JJ Engelbrecht in midfield, which will be vital as the Sharks are likely to base their attack around Lambie and big forwards Alberts, Coetzee, Mtawarira and Du Toit running off him.
The Southern Kings have already done enough this season to suggest most people would like to see them around in SuperRugby for more than just one year, but they have the opportunity on Saturday to make themselves most unpopular with their predecessors as everyone’s favourite underdogs – the Cheetahs.
The Cheetahs are firmly in contention for Conference honours but they are six points behind the Bulls, so defeat in Port Elizabeth and a victory for the visitors in Durban could leave them 10 points behind. And the Bulls have a game in hand.
The Kings are coming off a bye and have pretty much returned to full strength. SP Marais, a wonderful attacker with pace, vision and skill, comes in at fullback and has the talent to be the Eastern Cape’s answer to Willie le Roux.
And the less subtle talents of the formidable Jacques Engelbrecht are also just waiting to be unleashed on the Cheetahs from the bench.
Where the Cheetahs could have an edge is up front, in the set-pieces, where former Springbok great Os du Randt has proven to be a brilliant mentor.
“I think we have done really well the last couple of weeks in the scrums and lineouts,” Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss said. “The guys have worked really hard and much of the credit must go to Os du Randt for his efforts with the forwards. We will have to take the Kings on up front and are looking forward to the challenge.”
If the Cheetahs get enough forward dominance, they can aim for the four-try bonus point because one fancies the Bulls aren’t going to get one in the cauldron of King’s Park.
But as big Os has surely pointed out, the Kings are a proud bunch, they will be refreshed and confident after their great debut season thus far, and they’re certainly not going to lie down and just allow the Cheetahs to run riot.
Southern Kings (v Cheetahs, Saturday 15:00): SP Marais, Siyanda Grey, Ronnie Cooke, Andries Strauss, Marcello Sampson, Demetri Catrakilis, Shaun Venter, Cornell du Preez, Luke Watson, Wimpie van der Walt, David Bulbring, Steven Sykes, Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Virgile Lacombe, Grant Kemp, Rynier Bernardo, Jacques Engelbrecht, Nicolas Vergallo, Shane Gates, George Whitehead.
Cheetahs (v Southern Kings, Saturday 15:00): Hennie Daniller, Rayno Benjamin, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Willie le Roux, Elgar Watts, Piet van Zyl, Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagné, Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Trevor Nyakane, Ligtoring Landman, Boom Prinsloo, Sarel Pretorius, Riaan Smit, Raymond Rhule.
Stormers (v Reds, Saturday 17:05): Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Jean de Villiers, Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Elton Jantjies, Louis Schreuder, Nizaam Carr, Don Armand, Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Gerbrandt Grobler, Brok Harris, Tiaan Liebenberg, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Martin Bezuidenhout, Chris Heiberg, Marius Coetzer, Rohan Kitshoff, Dewaldt Duvenage, Gary van Aswegen, Gerhard van den Heever.
The Sharks (v Bulls, Saturday 19:10pm): Riaan Viljoen, Odwa Ndungane, Piet Lindeque, Meyer Bosman, Lwazi Mvovo, Pat Lambie, Charl McLeod, Keegan Daniel, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jannie du Plessis, Kyle Cooper, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Monde Hadebe, Wiehahn Herbst, Jandré Marais, Jean Deysel, Lubabalo Mtembu, Tian Meyer, Sean Robinson.
Bulls (v Sharks, Saturday 19:10): Jürgen Visser, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Wynand Olivier, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Frik Kirsten, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements: Willie Wepener, Werner Kruger, Grant Hattingh, Arno Botha, Jano Vermaak, Louis Fouché/Jan Serfontein, Lionel Mapoe.
Other fixtures: Chiefs v Crusaders (Friday 9:35); Rebels v Waratahs (Friday 11:40); Blues v Brumbies (Saturday 9:35); Force v Highlanders (Saturday 11:40).