Only two teams have managed to beat the Stormers this year but the Sharks will fancy their chances of doing it for a second time.
Only two teams have managed to beat the Stormers this year, but the Sharks will fancy their chances of doing it for a second time in Saturday's Super Rugby semi-final at Newlands.
History suggests that the odds are against the Durbanites winning consecutive knock-out games on the road, but after last week's stellar performance against the defending champions in Brisbane, John Plumtree's team have every reason to believe they can become the first visiting team to win in Cape Town in 2012. And the question marks hanging over the Stormers' attack will only fuel the Sharks' confidence.
Not since Jake White told the world the Boks didn't need a fetcher has a debate raged on at Planet Rugby like the one currently surrounding the Stormers' season. Is top spot in the standings a true reflection of the Stormers' credentials for the title? I, for one, am not convinced.
One faction in our international-inter-office feud has long insisted that the numbers speak for themselves: 14 wins in 16 games. Winning is all that counts, they argue, and Jean de Villiers' boys have done plenty of it.
Those stats are truly impressive, yet the Stormers' record against the other three semi-finalists is far less so. They did not play the Chiefs this year and lost to Crusaders. A very late penalty was required to scrape past the Sharks at Newlands and they needed an intercept try and then a late consolation score from Gio Aplon to save a losing bonus point in Durban.
The Capetonians' inability to score more than three tries in a match all season has been well documented and while fans in Cape Town will point to their side's brilliant defensive record, unconvincing performances in their last two home games – when they struggled to overcome the lowly Lions and Rebels – only served to highlight the apparent limitations of their attacking game.
Pessimists will suggest that grinding out results week in and week out might be enough to earn a semi-final berth, but to win a spot in a final you must be able to step it up a gear and knock out a top team. This time last year, the Stormers failed to find that elusive extra gear against the Crusaders… and we all know how that ended.
Ok, enough Stormers bashing. Finishing top of the overall standings demands respect. Some might even go so far as to say their defence-oriented style suits 'finals' rugby. Indeed, the fact that a plethora of back-row injuries didn't halt their march to the South African conference crown underlines the strength of the Stormers' structures. They keep the error count low, which is always the most important part of winning an elimination match.
The Sharks have not tasted victory at Newlands since 2009 and their cross-continental travelling schedule over the last fortnight will count heavily against them. While Plumtree insists “it's not unknown territory for us, we know what it feels like to be a bit jet-lagged, you do improve as the week goes on”, it's hard to imagine changing 16 times zones in under two weeks will have no effect on bodies already worn out by a long season.
Any neutral South African fan will surely be cheering for the men in blue stripes because the Sharks will have little chance of winning a final in New Zealand after yet another long-haul flight. But we're getting ahead of ourselves – any premature thoughts of the final will spell disaster for either side.
While the Stormers have certainly developed a winning habit this season, considering the results of the past month and the Stormers bye week – which can often play havoc with a side's rhythm – the Sharks are probably carrying more momentum. If they can burst out of the blocks the way they did against the Reds, it'll be interesting to see if the Stormers are able to wrestle back control.
Both coaches have highlighted the importance of the set piece and while the Sharks will aim to build on the go-forward ball generated by their monster pack, the Stormers will expect to dominate at line-out time.
On paper there is very little to pick between the sides and, as is always the case in South African derbies, the collisions will be brutal. Don't bet your house on this one, it could go either way.
Players to watch:
For the Stormers: Just like his team's track record this year, Peter Grant is at the centre of wide-spread debate. While elements of the press in Cape Town are calling for the pivot to be handed the Springbok 10 jersey, others are suggesting that his combination with Dewaldt Duvenage is at the origin of the Stormers' stale attack. Whatever side of the fence you prefer, no one can deny that Bash has made very few mistakes and has been in devastating form from the kicking tee, slotting 45 from 48 attempts at goal this season – a very impressive 94 per cent success rate. He's a class player and his contribution with both his hands and feet will be vital to the result. Also keep an eye on hooker cum number eight Deon Fourie, who has been a revelation in his new role. But his loose forward credentials will be given their toughest test yet against one of South Africa's form players at the moment, Ryan Kankowski.
For the Sharks: Veteran French international Frederic Michalak could be playing his last game for the Sharks. “He's pivotal to our game,” said Plumtree earlier this week. “He's a big game player who loves the big occasions; the bigger the occasion, the more he loves them and they don't get much better than the knock-outs we're involved in now. We give him a lot of responsibility as to how we want to play the game, and he's going really well.” Enough said. Perhaps even more crucial to the Sharks' game will be their principal source of front-foot ball, Springbok flank Willem Alberts, who starts at lock. The Stormers second row is one of the best in the competition so Alberts will have to produce another big performance to justify Plumtree's decision start with four loose forwards.
Head to head: The Sharks thrive on the platform provided by their pack busting over the gain line with Marcell Coetzee and Keegan Daniel key to backing up the raging bull that is Bismarck du Plessis. Their battle at the breakdown with Rynhardt Elstadt and Siya Kolisi could hold the key to the outcome. As much as Alberts' place in the Sharks second row is an illustration of the Sharks' tactic of running off big ball carriers, Elstadt's inclusion in the Stormers loose trio points to their desire to dominate in the air and in the tight stuff. A new generation of loosies has emerged in South Africa, who will rule on Saturday?
2012: Sharks won 25-20 in Durban
2012: Stormers won 15-12 in Cape Town
2011: Stormers won 32-12 in Cape Town
2011: Stormers won 16-6 in Durban
2010: Sharks won 20-14 in Durban
2009: Sharks won 20-15 in Cape Town
2008: Sharks won