Flight of the bumblebees
Scientists have proven to their own satisfaction that it is technically impossible for the bumblebee to fly. Its weight to wingspan ratio is simply too great. But as long as no one gets around to telling the bee, it can continue on its daily chore of collecting pollen while flying rings around the laws of physics.
It is surely technically impossible for a rugby team to fly across 10 time zones twice in one week and expect to win a Super 12 semifinal.
Plenty of people have already told the Stormers exactly that, but they have to emulate the bumblebee and make a fool of logic. Maybe it would help if they wore the striped jerseys of Western Province and put honey on their muesli.
It was Paul Simon who advised Mrs Robinson, ‘Anyway you look at this you lose” — and that is certainly the case for Gert Smal’s black-clad brethren. Just look how it stacks up. They’re playing the Crusaders in Christchurch, the single most successful side in the history of the competition, who have been to the final five times in eight seasons.
Compare the Crusaders to the Brumbies — everybody’s favourite for the title this year — and you get a sense of perspective. The Brumbies have been to the final four times and won only once, against the Sharks in Canberra in 2001. The Crusaders have yet to lose a semifinal and have lost only once in the final, and that by four points to the Blues in Auckland last year.
To put it mildly, the Crusaders know what to do when they get to the sharp end of the Super 12.
The Stormers, on the other hand, have reached the semifinal only once in their history, on an infamous day at Newlands in 1999 when the home side had to be coaxed out of the tunnel, following a strike by the players. Pick ‘n Pay boss Raymond Ackerman came up with the missing cash at the last moment, but the psychological damage had been done and the Highlanders won comfortably.
History is not on the Stormers’ side, either in semifinals or in head-to-heads. They have beaten the Crusaders just twice, have never won in Christchurch, and the worst defeat of all came just two weeks ago when 15 Stormers led 14 Crusaders 9-8 at half time and yet lost 24-9.
With a numerical advantage for the entire second half, the Stormers decided en masse to kick the ball whenever the opportunity arose. The opportunity arose many times and they failed to score a single point in the second half. And this was the team that racked up 50 points against the Blues at Eden Park two weeks previously.
The Stormers have given new meaning to inconsistency this year: Supermen one week, Clark Kents the next. It’s almost as though when they remove their clothing in the Newlands telephone booth they don’t know what lies beneath: the invulnerable garb of the man of steel or thermal underwear and a colostomy bag.
Therein lies the key, of course, the clue to why the Stormers actually do have a chance to become the first Cape team to reach a Super 12 final. Put yourself in the black and red Crusaders shirt and consider this. How do you prepare to play a team when you don’t know which one will turn up?
For one thing, purely in terms of playing personnel, it is a markedly better team that will play this weekend than that which trudged off Jade stadium a fortnight ago. On that day Smal gambled with the Rossouw brothers at flyhalf and left wing, in place of Gaffie du Toit and Tonderai Chavanga, who had played those positions against the Chiefs a week previously. He will surely not make the same mistake again.
One of the most difficult things in professional sport is to know when to tell a faithful servant that it’s time to go. That moment arrived with Pieter Rossouw at the end of last season. Chavanga is raw and does not yet possess the elder Rossouw’s positional sense, but he has the one thing no wing can hope to succeed without: true pace.
As for Chris Rossouw, the days when he was compared to Stephen Larkham are long gone. His lateral running destroys space for those around him and his kicking is now too inconsistent to ignore other deficiencies.
Everything is thus set up for Du Toit to have a shocker in Rossouw’s place, of course, since Du Toit has never had a good game at flyhalf in a serious match in his whole frustrating career. There is always a first time, but the key to the result may hinge on Du Toit’s mind and the strength of character of those around him to fill the breach if it goes wandering.
The best piece of news does not concern the Stormers at all, though. It is that Justin Marshall will not be fit to play for the Crusaders. When Ken Catchpole, the greatest scrum-half of them all, came to South Africa last year he paid little more than lip service to George Gregan.
‘Justin Marshall can play, though,” Catchpole said with a wink to identify the understatement of the century. The Crusaders will miss Marshall so much that the jetlagged and bumblebee-winged Stormers may create history on Saturday.