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Stephen Nell | Columnist Index
Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
Stormers could emerge as title contenders
Stephen Nell
April 3, 2008

"The Stormers may well be the dark horse in the competition. They started off badly with three losses from as many games in the competition, but achieved unprecedented success on tour." Stephen Nell writes

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers was mocked for his early prediction that South Africa could have up to three teams in the semi-finals of the Super14.

However, after a stuttering start, the world champions appear to be finding their form in the competition, with the Sharks and Stormers looking good bets to make the top four.

The Stormers may well be the dark horse in the competition. They started off badly with three losses from as many games in the competition, but achieved unprecedented success on tour, picking up 16 points in four games.

Rassie Erasmus's side beat the Reds, Chiefs and Force, and narrowly went down to the Blues.

However, even in defeat they managed to get a bonus point, and achieved the same feat for tries scored in all three the victories. The 16 points achieved on tour therefore gives them the equivalent of four victories.

They now have five home games coming up, followed by an away fixture against the Lions. The team is oozing confidence and opportunity is knocking.

They'll have the weekend of 4 and 5 April off for rest and recuperation after their exertions overseas, and then come back for a tough derby against the Cheetahs to kick off their home run.

The Sharks are also handily placed after six wins from as many fixtures. However, they have just embarked on a murderous five-game tour, with fixtures against the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Brumbies, Waratahs and Crusaders coming up.

Even so, it would not be unrealistic to aspire to win three of those games and secure their path into the semifinals.

The Bulls have been the biggest disappointment as they have clearly struggled to come to terms with the loss of head coach Heyneke Meyer and senior players such as lock Victor Matfield and hooker Gary Botha.

New coach Frans Ludeke is being blamed for their demise, but just lately their have been some promising signs, with IRB world player of the year Bryan Habana showing a return to form and Springbok No 8 Pierre Spies making a forceful comeback against the Blues.

As disappoointing as the losses to the Reds and Chiefs were, so the performance against the Blues at Eden Park, which would have been a victory but for some poor decision-making by the Bulls and blunders by match officials, inspired confidence for a revival.

Even if the Bulls are now highly unlikely to make the semifinals, they can aspire to a finish in the top half of the table, especially with most of their touring duties out of the way.

The Lions and Cheetahs are languishing near the bottom, but to be fair, have sometimes played some decent rugby.
The Cheetahs have lost a few games they should have won and have pushed most opponents to the bitter end, while the Lions have shown a refreshing willingness to attack from depth.

To be fair to the Lions, they have not been helped by the fact that stars such as flyhalf Andre Pretorius and centre Jaque Fourie have been injured. They have also struggled for depth in their tight forwards.

Their setbacks, however, have mostly been honourable ones, though life could get difficult on tour.

Nevertheless, come the semifinals, South Africa could have two representatives there if things go according to plan.

The Crusaders, of course, will be hot favourites to reclaim the title after the Bulls won it last year, but don't dare write off the Sharks or Stormers.

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