My calibration when it comes to the Stormers has often proved to bet off-centre with sentiment compromising reason but one would think that the 60-21 humiliation to the same opposition, at the same venue, at the same stage in last year’s quarterfinal would have them frothing at the mouth for revenge.
The brains trust felt it necessary to overhaul the way that they train and even had a specific day in each week in the pre-season dedicated to preparing for this exact fixture. This is the rematch they’ve been waiting for, perhaps even praying for. Surely the likes of Etzebeth, Kolisi, Du Toit, and Elstad will be looking to draw blood from the opposition to emphatically exorcise the ghost of 2016. The selection of Elstad ahead of Notshe speaks volumes about how they will approach this game. It is possible that the Stormers’ lineout struggles may also have prompted the inclusion of a more adept jumping option, but it’s likely that they will be seeking to employ the abrasive edge that Elstad brings to the forward pack. Key to the Stormers’ success will be the ability to plug the hole outside E W Viljoen at no13. He’s looked extremely vulnerable against even relatively weak opposition. Containing Lienert-Brown and McKenzie in that channel is going to be a massive ask as the Chiefs will no-doubt have identified it as a potential area for high returns in opportunities created. And what a baptism for the precocious Damian Willemse. I imagine that the Chiefs’ runners will have been told to ask questions in his channel as it is unclear whether the young man has the answers againsy opposition of that quality yet, especially since he doesn’t have a no12 who is renowned for his defense (Damian De Allende, for all his attacking potency, racked up one of the highest missed-tackle counts in the 2015 competition) to protect
Additionally, Dillyn Leyds moves back to the wing after 2 weeks of sublime incursions from fullback with SP Marais returning as last line of defense, presumably to take over the kicking duties. Bringing Marais back cold in such a massive game instead of backing the chemistry that’s blossoming between Senatla, Leyds, and Kolbe may be a mistake by Fleck, but we won’t have to wait long to eat the pudding for its proof.
The Chiefs will be at no shortage of motivation of their own. They’ve even closed their training sessions and been training in the dark all week. This is the swansong for many who have been instrumental in their success in recent years, Cruden (Montpellier), Leitch (Sunwolves), Lowe (Leinster) will all be looking to depart Hamilton on a high note but, most notably, it is iconic coach Dave Rennie’s final campaign with a franchise whose trophy cabinet finally found occupation under his mentorship. Rennie’s strength has always been that he’s the kind of coach that players will leave their wives and children behind to go to war for. The fact that the Stormers got one over the Chiefs in the regular season (thanks in no small part to a moment of genius by Dillyn Leyds) will be fresh in the minds of the Chiefs, they’ll relish the opportunity to set matters straight. The loss of Charlie Ngatai is significant but the double-playmaker combination of Cruden and Donald is just the kind of intellectual partnership and variation in options that could cause a Stormers backline that has built the unenviable reputation for being somewhat permeable.
Since my prescience is clearly compromised by my blue and white striped heart, I’ll not be so bold as to call a winner in this clash. The rugby Gods have scripted it into a guaranteed epic. Sowutya efileyo.