By Steve McMorran
The Chiefs and Stormers, who set the pace in Super Rugby throughout the 2012 season, will meet in very different circumstances on Saturday during the fourth round of a 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 atop the championship table after last year's regular season, then faded in the playoffs and saw South African compatriots the Sharks go on to oppose the Chiefs in the final.
When they meet in Cape Town on Saturday, the Chiefs will have two wins from two matches in the 2013 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 of last season.
The Chiefs opened their 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 have had to open their season with two of the unforgiving derby matches which 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 dog fight and one of the toughest derbies you can get," Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said after the loss to the Sharks. "It was almost like a test match out there.
"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, fullback Jaco Taute and flanker Michael Rhodes joined flanker Schalk Burger and hooker Scarra Ntubeni on the injury list this week but Coetzee was undeterred. Wingers Bryan Habana and Joe Pietersen were also rested in training this week because of minor knocks.
"There are quite a few key players out but imagine if we did not have the depth in our squad," said Coetzee.
"We would have been far worse off because it would have affected our future prospects of success as the season unfolds."
Coetzee said his players had not lost confidence from their losing 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 equaled 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."
Backrower 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 on Friday 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 to the season.
"We need to keep things in perspective," Hammett said. "From a forward pack point of view, (it's) execution - we haven't quite been finishing things off.
"But we've had two games, unfortunately been the better team and come out on the wrong end. So I'm not going to go and chase speculation around whether we are not going well. We are going well, we just haven't got the results yet."
In other fourth round matches, the Melbourne Rebels play the Queensland Reds, the Dunedin-based Highlanders play the Cheetahs, the Southern Kings host the Durban-based Sharks and the Blues play the Bulls.
source: newshub archive