An attack-minded Stormers side will be hard-pressed to live with a more polished Chiefs outfit in the quarter-final at Newlands on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Stormers went down 60-21 to the Chiefs in the quarter-final at Newlands last year. Afterwards, coach Robbie Fleck let rip at the tournament format.
The Stormers did not face the five New Zealand teams during the regular season in 2016. They weren't exposed to the Kiwis' physicality and intensity and were thus, according to Fleck, completely unprepared for the challenge presented by the Chiefs in the quarter-final.
One year on, and the Stormers will face the same side at the same venue for a place in the semi-finals. On this occasion, the Stormers have faced all five of the New Zealand sides in the lead-up to this year's showdown with the Chiefs (and have lost three out of five). Come the final whistle at Newlands on Saturday night, Fleck won't be able to make the same excuse.
Indeed, the Stormers made a statement regarding their own fitness and physicality when they beat the Chiefs at Newlands earlier this season. They failed to maintain those impressive standards in subsequent matches, though, losing four in a row against the Lions, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes.
The Stormers have scored some great tries this season. Only three teams (namely the Lions, Hurricanes and Crusaders) have scored more tries overall in 2017.
The difference between the Stormers and the best teams has been the quality of the defence. The Stormers have leaked 61 tries to date. Even the likes of the Cheetahs and Bulls – teams that finished 13th and 15th in the overall standings – managed to pressure and breach the Stormers defence in recent weeks.
The Chiefs have scored a relatively modest number of tries this season (55). That said, their outstanding defence has allowed them to net six try-scoring bonus points and as many as 12 wins.
Dave Rennie's side comes into this playoff on the back of a 28-10 win against the Brumbies in Canberra. They've travelled a long way to Cape Town, but will still fancy their chances against a physically and mentally vulnerable Stormers side.
The Stormers have lost seven out of eight playoffs. Home advantage hasn't amounted to much when one considers that they've lost five out of six knockout games at Newlands.
Does this Stormers side have what it takes to buck the trend? They certainly made a statement when they hosted the Chiefs in round eight. Over the past few weeks, however, they have lacked physicality and focus.
The Chiefs should be looking to expose the Stormers in the initial stages of Saturday's clash. The visitors should look to win territory and test that creaking Stormers defence. If the Chiefs score early and take a lead of 10 points or more into the break, the Stormers will crumble.
The Stormers' forwards have a point to prove. The 19-year-old flyhalf, Damian Willemse, will need to step up as a game manager. Fullback SP Marais will need to maintain his composure when kicking for goal. The hosts can't afford to lose the territorial battle or to miss any shots on goal.
The Stormers finished strongly in the regular-season fixture to deny the Chiefs a comeback victory. And yet, they should be mindful of the visitors' ability to shift gear in the second stanza and pile on the points.
Given what's transpired over the past few weeks, one would expect the Chiefs to prevail and to hand the Stormers yet another playoff loss at home.
STATS THAT MATTER
– The Stormers earned an eight-point win against the Chiefs when they met in round seven and will search for back-to-back wins against them for the first time since 2008; however, the Chiefs earned a comprehensive 60-21 win when these teams met in last season’s quarter-finals.
– The Chiefs have won five and drawn one of their seven fixtures away from home this season; their only road loss came when they travelled to Cape Town in Round eight.
– The Chiefs have conceded only 13 first-half tries so far this season, the fewest of any team in the competition and 20 fewer than the Stormers.
– SP Marais has made 31 offloads so far this campaign, the equal most of any player in the competition and six more than Chiefs’ best Damian McKenzie (25).
Stormers – 15 SP Marais , 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth , 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Subs: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Juan de Jongh, 23 Seabelo Senatla.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Solomon Alaimalo, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Stephen Donald, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-captain), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (co-captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Mitchell Brown, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images