Stormers are stout in Super Rugby as withdrawal rumors swirl
By STEVE McMORRAN
(AP) -- The Stormers have the chance of a history-making start to Super Rugby when they play fellow South African side the Lions on Saturday in the third round.
The Cape Town-based Stormers matched their own record, achieved once in the 25-year history of Super Rugby, of maintaining a clean sheet in consecutive matches when they beat the Wellington-based Hurricanes 27-0 in round one and the Pretoria-based Bulls 13-0 in round two.
They first achieved the feat in 2014, beating the Cheetahs 33-0 and Bulls 16-0, and have the chance to become the first team to hold opponents scoreless in three straight games.
On both occasions their back-to-back clean sheets were achieved at their Newlands home, and if they are to better their record they will have to do so on the road. They travel to Johannesburg on Saturday to face the Lions, who are 1-1 after losing heavily to the Jaguares before beating the Queensland Reds.
The Lions have never been held scoreless at home in Super Rugby.
Lions assistant coach Julian Redelinghuys said his team relished the challenge posed by the Stormers' impenetrable defense.
"They've done well to keep zero on the scoreboard for two games," Redelinghuys said. "You hear it a lot from us but we keep to the processes and if the points come, they come. Keep on knocking on the door for the next opportunity."
The Stormers say they will target a vulnerable Lions scrum, working again for the set-piece control they achieved against the Hurricanes and Bulls. They suffered a setback in that area this week when Springboks hooker Bongi Mbonambi underwent surgery on a damaged hamstring and will likely miss the rest of the season.
The Stormers lead the Africa conference by a point from the Durban-based Sharks, who are also 2-0 and beat the Highlanders in New Zealand last weekend. The Lions and Jaguares have 1-1 records and the Bulls, who have a bye this round, are winless after two games.
With their powerful lineup and impressive form, the Stormers have been one of the best things about Super Rugby so far. But it is a season once again haunted by a report that South Africa may be about to quit both Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship to play in the Six Nations and British premier club tournaments.
Similar reports have emerged over the years, based on the premise that the time zone in Britain would be more congenial for South African television viewers than those in Australia and New Zealand.
South Africa's withdrawal would severely damage the prestige of the four-nation Rugby Championship and would likely spell the end of Super Rugby which would not be financially viable without South African participation.
For that reason, New Zealand Rugby was quick to reject the latest reports and to insist no South African exit is imminent. New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said South Africa was contractually bound to remain within the Sanzaar grouping for the time being.
"Like us, they've signed agreements with their broadcasters through 2025 to be involved with Sanzaar," Robinson said. "And as recently as this week we were on calls talking about the future of our competitions at Super level and international level.
"So Sanzaar and certainly South Africa were very engaged in those conversations. They are people that we trust, they are very honest, and they've been great partners over the last 25 years."
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Updated February 13, 2020