After the most arduous of roads for all the teams we have our top six. There was plenty of scepticism (from this writer too, I might add) before the tournament got under way, but the conference system has delivered. It was the cause célèbre before the tournament started, but forget about the World Cup for a moment: we have a Super Rugby format that is tried, functional and downright entertaining.
There are two sides from each country in the top six and the organisers could not have asked for more, even if they’d spent the past year scripting the weaving tale themselves. We need not fear the mass suffocation of supporters next season, because I believe we’re all warming to the format and for the past four months we’ve been treated, and royally so. Add to it all a World Cup in New Zealand and it’s fair to say we’ll have been spoilt.
For our South African sides the remaining miles will be somewhat different. The Stormers have the pressure of a home semifinal next weekend and are out to prove to everybody that they won’t just be pulling on the Blue and White in another final, but will go one better than they did in Soweto last May.
They are enjoying a well-earned rest, as the players have been given a week off with their families, clearing their heads and recharging the storage cells. I chatted to Rob Fleck on Monday and he said they’d been outplayed by just one team all season and that was the side above them on the log. During the other defeats to the Crusaders, Chiefs and Bulls, the Newlands team trudged off the field knowing they were the architects of their own demise.
What remains to be seen is whether or not the break will prove beneficial. A side can be caught on the hop by a band in tune and a rigorous match a week before a major semifinal is another chance to strengthen the resolve.
“In addition to the second half against the Chiefs, the first 73 minutes against the Bulls was the worst we’ve played all season,” Fleck said. That dour affair at Newlands 11 days ago came off the back of a Stormers bye.
However Fleck is chipper as ever about where the team stands, both physically and mentally. “The team is in a good space,” said Fleck. “We’ve responded well from injuries to key individuals and our attacking game has gradually come together. We learnt our lessons from losing the Super Rugby and Currie Cup finals last year, so we’re in a strong position now.”
Turning to this Saturday, and the Sharks will have to turn over a Crusaders side besotted with the idea of reclaiming a crown they’ve called theirs five times since 2000. But the Durban boys beat the Bulls at Loftus against all expectations, and that performance will serve them well on their sojourn in New Zealand.
The level of commitment at the breakdown to nullify the burly blue pack was immense, and had Pat Lambie not had a rare offday and missed three kicks, their victory by three points might have been significantly more comfortable. They were full value.
With everything that the people of Christchurch have been through since February, it seems the men in red and black are those tasked with appeasing the collective pain. 29 tries in their last 11 matches has been just the tonic their supporters have needed. But that return is what we expect from Todd Blackadder’s team. They combine defensive rigour with the fantasy element of running rugby.
This will be a duel of engaging enterprise as the South invasion at HQ in late March attests. Pundits took their time to digest the Crusaders’ swashbuckling devil-may-care display and reporters struggled to outdo one another’s superlatives.
But don’t discount the contribution the Sharks made to that game. The ‘Saders would have beaten most international sides on evidence of the first forty, but the second half will fill the Sharks with belief. They scored four tries themselves and remained true to their own buccaneering principles.
John Plumtree’s men need no motivation this Saturday. Nelson is a small, intimate place that has all the ingredients needed for a repetition of the pure theatre we witnessed at Twickenham. They’ll be ravenous and pumped up knowing that only winning the trophy itself will provide a headier rush than trumping DC and co on their way there.
And there’s no question that the Sharks are taking the most scenic route possible.
My weekly column for supersport.com.