Stormers can’t afford to slip

A loss to the Lions could wreck the Stormers’ home semi-final chances and possibly cost them a place in the play-offs. JON CARDINELLI reports.

The Stormers are South Africa’s best bet for a Vodacom Super Rugby title, right? They’re currently in second place on the overall log, and at the top of the local conference. They will play their next game against the Lions at Newlands, and their final league match against the struggling Sharks at Kings Park. In theory, the Stormers are the best-placed of the South African contenders.

At least for now. That could all change if a few results, including a defeat to the Lions at Newlands, go against them in the penultimate round.

The Lions did the Cape side a massive favour this past Saturday when they beat the Waratahs at Ellis Park. The result not only kept the Lions’ slim play-off hopes alive, but slowed the Waratahs' surge towards a top-two finish in the standings.

Slowed, not stopped. The Waratahs will play the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and the Reds in Sydney over the next two weeks. The Cheetahs will struggle to contain the Waratahs as well as the Lions' defence did recently. While travelling back to Australia for the final league game may sap some of the Waratahs' strength, the 2014 champions will still be favourites to knock over the Reds in Sydney.

But the Stormers will be playing for more than a home semi-final over the next two rounds. They will be scrapping a play-off spot, period.

The Lions’ win over the Waratahs was both a good and bad thing for the Cape franchise. It keeps the Stormers in the running for a home semi-final, but it also brings the Lions back into contention for the South African conference title.

The Lions are at a disadvantage in that they only have one game remaining in the league phase. However, if they beat the Stormers, and deny the Cape side a losing bonus point, the Lions will finish the penultimate round at the top of the South African standings.

The Lions will then sit and wait for the Sharks to do them a favour in the final round. If the Stormers lose to the Lions and Sharks, and fail to claim any losing bonus points in those contests, then they will finish second, or worse, in the South African conference. In that scenario, they may also drop out of the top six and miss out on play-off qualification.

Of course, the Stormers could clinch the conference title and book their spot in the play-offs this week through a straight win over the Lions. A win at Newlands would take the Stormers to 47 log points.

It’s a total that would be beyond another conference title-contender like the Bulls. The Pretoria-based side only have 36 log points at present, and at best can finish the league stage with 46.

The Bulls will want the Lions to down the Stormers this Saturday. If the Bulls win their last two games, they will increase their chances of pipping the Lions and Stormers for the conference trophy.

But it would take some turnaround. The Bulls would need to score bonus-point wins in both games against the Rebels and Cheetahs. They can’t afford to finish the league with an equal number of log points as the Stormers or the Lions. Both of those teams have won more matches, and would finish higher on the table in that scenario.

The Lions need more than a win this weekend to advance. As previously stated, they need to ensure the Stormers obtain no bonus points at Newlands this weekend. They then need the Sharks to deny the Stormers log points in the regular season finale. If the Lions and Stormers finish on equal log points, and with an equal number of wins, the Cape side will still finish ahead of their Joburg counterparts by virtue of their superior points difference.

In Wellington this coming Friday, the Hurricanes need a single log point to clinch the New Zealand conference. And yet, the Highlanders still have much to play for. They currently sit in fourth position, and will want to maintain that standing over the next two weeks to ensure they have home advantage for the qualifying play-off.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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Jon Cardinelli