Exposure to the New Zealand sides during the conference stage will improve the Lions' and even the Sharks' chances of succeeding in the playoffs, writes JON CARDINELLI.
How good are the Stormers? The South African group log suggests they're the best team across the two African conferences. The Stormers have obtained the most log points to date, and it wouldn't surprise to see them consolidating their position over the next few weeks.
But how good are they? Have we really answered the question?
Indeed, if the Stormers do go on to finish the conference stage at the top of the South African group, is that an indication of their quality as well as their ability to succeed in the playoffs?
There is no definitive answer to this question. Due to the expansion of the tournament in 2016, the format has been altered drastically. The Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers play the Australian franchises during the conference stage. The Lions, Sharks and Kings play the New Zealand sides.
Prior to the start of the 2016 competition, this was highlighted as but one of the many flaws in the new tournament structure. Nine rounds into the conference stage, and it's been clear that the second group of South African teams have had it tougher than the first.
The Stormers have recorded some important wins over the course of their campaign. They beat the Bulls – the next best team in the Africa 1 conference and thus the biggest threat to the Cape side's conference title hopes – convincingly in the first round. The Stormers thumped the Brumbies at Newlands and then tamed the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
However, what's become clearer as the conference stage has progressed is that the Africa 1 conference is not as strong as Africa 2. The Stormers have won six of their eight matches. Their two losses have come against the frontrunners for the Africa 2 crown, namely the Lions and Sharks. The Sharks even managed to beat the Stormers at Newlands.
Those results do put the Stormers' form, and perhaps the Sharks' situation, into perspective. The latter side has come in for fierce criticism over the past few weeks. The reality of the situation is that the Sharks have faced tougher opposition.
The Crusaders beat the Sharks by five points and the Lions by six on their recent tour to South Africa. The Cantabrians made a big statement by beating the two best South African sides in South Africa. They have continued to improve in subsequent weeks.
The Lions and Sharks may argue that they managed to compete against one of the better sides of the 2016 tournament. Indeed, both the Lions and Sharks have gone one better this season by winning in New Zealand. The Lions beat the Chiefs in Hamilton (they are still the only side to beat the Chiefs in 2016) while the Sharks eked out a win over the Highlanders in Dunedin.
The Stormers remain on course for a playoff berth. What happens next when they are pitted against Kiwi opponents will be less predictable. While the Lions and Sharks may qualify the hard way, the Stormers should cruise into the knockout stage. The Cape side will be forced to make a significant physical and mental improvement from thereon in.
New Bok coach Allister Coetzee, a former mentor at the Stormers, will have his favourites at the Cape franchise and may opt to bring them through to the national side. That said, Coetzee can't ignore the fact that the best South African sides in the Africa 2 conference have been tested regularly by the New Zealand sides.
Any success by a Bulls, Stormers and Cheetahs player must be viewed in context. They have not been pitted against some of the best players (read Kiwis) on the planet. The playoffs may reveal whether those Stormers players (or Bulls, should they qualify) have what it takes to compete at Test level.
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