Stormers seek first win of new season against unbeaten Chiefs
Depleted Cape Town side aim to stop the rot as two of last season’s pacesetters go head-to-head
The Chiefs and Stormers, who set the pace in Super Rugby throughout last season, will meet in very different circumstances tomorrow during the fourth round of the new season.
The Hamilton-based Chiefs stayed near the top of the championship table throughout last year's tournament, before going on to win the title for the first time in their 17-year history.
The Stormers finished top of the table after the end of the regular season, then faded in the play-offs and saw South African compatriots the Sharks go on to oppose the Chiefs in the final.
When they meet in Cape Town tomorrow, the Chiefs will have two wins from two matches in this year's competition, while the Stormers have two losses from two games, making the match an early crossroads for both teams.
Their remaining common ground is that both teams have been besieged by injuries at the start of the new season. But while the Chiefs have coped, investing faith in young players who have performed, the Stormers have struggled to recover the confidence they showed last season.
The Chiefs opened the current campaign with an away win over the Dunedin-based Highlanders, then returned home to beat the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs 45-3, despite leading only 10-3 after an error-ridden first half.
The Stormers' season has opened with two of the unforgiving derby matches that mark the South African conference, losing 25-17 to the Pretoria-based Bulls and 12-6 last weekend to the Durban-based Sharks.
"It was always going to be a tough start to the competition, and this was really an arm-wrestle, a dogfight, and one of the toughest derbies you can get," Stormers boss Allister Coetzee said after the loss to the Sharks.
"It was almost like a test match out there," the coach added. "We're a team that's not used to losing, and if you want to be a championship side, you can't be happy with losing."
Centre Juan de Jongh, full-back Jaco Taute and flanker Michael Rhodes joined flanker Schalk Burger and hooker Scarra Ntubeni on the injury list this week, but Coetzee was undeterred by the restricted roster.
"There are quite a few key players out, but imagine if we did not have the depth in our squad," he said. "We would have been far worse off, because it would have affected our future prospects of success as the season unfolds."
Wingers Bryan Habana and Joe Pietersen were also rested in training this week because of minor knocks.
Coetzee insisted that his players had not lost confidence after their winless start to the season.
"It's not a train smash when you lose two games," he said. "There is still a lot of confidence in the team after they showed improvement since the first match.
"In the past, we made winning starts, although the margins were small. This season, we have not done that, but with a big improvement in our energy levels, we'll show far greater improvement."
The unbeaten ACT Brumbies will play the New South Wales Waratahs, who have a 1-1 record after two games, in the key match in the Australian conference.
Brumbies captain Ben Mowen, who spent four years with the Waratahs, said he was only now learning the strength of feeling from ACT players towards those from New South Wales. He said it equalled the bitterness evident in traditional matches between teams from Queensland and New South Wales states.
"I have to admit, I was very naive to the hatred," Mowen said. "In terms of our Waratahs prep for this game, we always treated it very importantly and understood it was going to be a tough match. But I didn't understand until I joined [the Brumbies], the passion that comes with that.
"It is very much a Queensland hatred of NSW that is mirrored down at the ACT against NSW."
Back-rower George Smith, who played 110 tests for Australia, will start the match on the Brumbies' bench after rejoining the team from Japan. Mowen said Smith's return added to the intensity of the match.
"We spoke about it, saying how excited we were for this week to come because it was going to be an important week," he said. "In terms of the importance, Waratah games are absolutely everything."
The Wellington-based Hurricanes and Christchurch-based Crusaders meet today in the critical match in the New Zealand conference. Both teams have yet to post a win this season, the Hurricanes after losses to the Auckland-based Blues and Queensland Reds, and the Crusaders after last week's heavy loss to the Blues.
Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett said he was not yet concerned with his team's slow start.
"We need to keep things in perspective," he said. "From a forward pack point of view, [it's] execution - we haven't quite been finishing things off."
In other fourth-round matches, the Melbourne Rebels play the Queensland Reds, the Highlanders play the Cheetahs, the Southern Kings host the Sharks, and the Blues play the Bulls.