The visit of the Crusaders to Newlands this week is resonant on a number of fronts. First, the way the Super 15 log looks at the moment, these two sides should be there at the sharp end of the competition. Second, in a tournament that is battling to attract good crowds, the “house full” sign may well be hoisted for this one. Third, there is the matter of what happened in 1999.
Let’s deal with the credentials of the sides first. There have been times, even before their unbeaten run was ended by the Reds, that the Stormers looked too one-dimensional to compete for honours. Their by-now famous defence won them games they might otherwise have lost and the goal-kicking of Peter Grant was often their only method of putting points on the board.
They had a number of Springboks who were not pulling their weight and everyone was expecting hooker Deon Fourie to be exposed as a paper tiger. The defeat by the Reds happened a month ago and since then the Stormers have played the Lions, had their second and last bye of the tournament and, after that, the Sharks came to Newlands.
Sharks coach John Plumtree described his side’s 32-12 defeat as one of his worst moments in charge. And yet, as complimentary as he was about the Stormers subsequently, there is something not quite right in Plumtree’s reaction, for the Stormers were so good that the Sharks were not allowed to play. It was a clear demonstration of the difference between a good side and title contenders. Perhaps understandably, Plumtree was unwilling to admit that in public.
After a fast start the Crusaders left it late against the Force in Perth, needing two tries in the last 10 minutes to wrap up a 42-30 win. This, on the back of an unexpected defeat by the Highlanders in Nelson a week earlier, has caused the Crusaders’ halo to slip a tad.
Yet the sheer quality of their key players, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams, with their impeccable Super Rugby pedigree, makes them impossible to ignore. Carter will be missing on Saturday, but tickets are likely to be as scarce as rocking-horse droppings, a fact that will delight both the host union and the tournament organisers.
Which brings us to 1999. That was the year that the Stormers “brand” took off. A clever marketing campaign pushed the new all-black team strip and the Cape Town faithful lapped it up. Newlands became home to the Men in Black and the crowd also got into the goth look. And, in fact, the crowd became the ace in the pack for the team.
The average crowd for the six successive home games that culminated in a semifinal was 47 000. The team was, of course, winning, and everybody loves a winner. But it was the quality of its parts that put the extra bums on seats. The pack was workmanlike, but at its base it had Bobby Skinstad, the 22-year-old wonder boy and captain. An all-international backline featured Percy Montgomery, Pieter Rossouw, Breyton Paulse and Robbie Fleck, each in the prime of his career.
The team reached its peak when the Crusaders came to town on April 18. Skinstad was at his inimitable best and the Stormers scored tries through Braam van Straaten, John Daniels and Rossouw. Van Straaten’s boot punished every Crusaders error and the teams, bound together in mutual admiration, met later that night to party.
What happened next is in dispute, but in the small hours of the morning Skinstad sustained a knee injury. At first it was thought to be relatively minor, but in fact Skinstad was never the same again.
The Stormers without him were good, but not great, and an ill-judged player strike on the eve of the semifinal shot down the team’s campaign.
The longer this season’s successful run continues, the more the parallels with 1999 are likely to be highlighted. The 2010 side may have reached the final, but such was the dominance of the Bulls that few believed the Stormers were capable of winning the tournament. Things have changed, and not just because the Bulls have fallen off the bus.
The display against the Sharks sent out a warning to every other side in the competition, not least the Crusaders. In the absence of Grant, and with a tyro at flyhalf in the form of Lionel Cronjé, the senior players came to the party. Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie ruthlessly exploited the Sharks’ soft centres; Schalk Burger was his old immense self; but the real quality was at lock, where Andries Bekker put down a marker to be first choice at the World Cup.
Just as Sonny Bill Williams’s reputation precedes him, Bekker has now entered the pantheon of problem players. That is to say he poses a problem to opposition sides that is almost impossible to solve: he is, almost literally, the elephant in the room.