There are two reasons why the Vodacom Stormers should be a lot more confident about their chances of beating the Crusaders than they were in their last meeting with the Super 14 champions. Those reasons go by the name of Schalk Burger and Luke Watson.
The two Stormers breakdown experts were missing from the team when they tackled the Crusaders in Cape Town last February. They lost 22-0 in a game which wasn’t nearly as one-sided as the scoreline suggested, and the Stormers were praised afterwards by the Crusaders, with their then coach Robbie Deans predicting the Stormers would come right.
Those words were to prove prophetic, as the Stormers lost only one more game that season. And Deans was probably mindful of the fact that Burger and Watson were both absent in the match against his team — Burger because of suspension, and Watson because of illness.
With Watson returning to the starting team this week after playing off the bench in the 56-18 rout of the Lions, and also back to his best form, the Stormers will be significantly strengthened in the all-important contesting of the breakdowns, more so because Burger also hit his best form against the Lions after a slow start to the season.
Come to think of it, there are more than just two reasons why the Stormers should be confident, and apart from the obvious (Dan Carter and Robbie Deans have both moved on to new pastures), they relate mainly to this important aspect of the game. This time the boot is on the other foot, for Richie McCaw, the Crusaders’ finest breakdown exponent, is still injured and will definitely not play.
And it could be a similar story with his more than capable back-up, George Whitelock, who limped off towards the end against the Waratahs and is considered a doubtful starter.
The Crusaders team will be announced on Thursday, and if Whitelock is not fit, Nasi Manu will slot in at openside, essentially meaning they are going in with their third choice against two of the best breakdown experts in the competition.