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Cape Town – The Stormers are confident of building on their consistent form this season as they once again go in search of the elusive Super Rugby title.
The performance level of the Western Cape outfit has taken a dramatic upward curve since 2010 when they finished the season as beaten finalists, after placing 10th in 2009.
In 2011 and 2012 the Capetonians won the South African conference. Their 2011 campaign ended with a semi-final defeat at the hands of the Crusaders, at Newlands, and a year later they lost another home semi-final to the Sharks.
This season the final is again a target, and given the well-balanced squad that has been assembled Ä with a massive player boost from the Lions Ä they are arguably fielding their strongest Super Rugby squad yet.
The players would have drawn great confidence from Western Province's victory over the Sharks in the 2012 Currie Cup final in October, and the Stormers had the best away record in Super Rugby last season, reflecting on the maturity of the squad, even when injuries disrupted their match-day teams.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has played down the absence of stars such as De Jongh, Tiaan Liebenberg and Schalk Burger for the start of the competition.
“We will be missing world class players and we do have four or five players making their debut for the Stormers,” Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said in the build-up to the campaign.
“However, they are all quality players. It's the first time since I have been involved at the Stormers that we have such depth in the squad.
“On the bench we have Joe Pietersen, Gerhard van den Heever and Dewaldt Duvenage as backline cover.”
The Stormers have excellent defence on which their game thrives, which often result into turnovers and are often the source of their attacking forays.
There is a an effort, however, to step up the side's attacking prowess and Coetzee showed that in last season's Currie Cup, when more flair was evident.
The arrival of flyhalf Elton Jantjies, from the rejected Lions, could provide the spark to get the backline playing to their true attacking potential.
Only centre Juan de Jongh provided moments of attacking brilliance last year, but the Stormers have yet to thrive on the potent attacking skills of De Villiers and Bryan Habana, mainly because of past emphasis on defence.
“It does feel like everyone is suddenly a lot sharper,” said stand-in captain Jean de Villiers.
“A lot was said last year about the long season and we are back into another one, but we have not played for a while now and one can feel the excitement building up in the camp for the season and what is lying ahead.
“I can sense the changing mood in the camp. Everyone is eager to get going.”
The absence of the Lions from this year's competition has seen a major shift in personnel from Gauteng to the Western Cape, with Jantjies, Jaco Taute, Michael Rhodes, Pat Cilliers, Ruan Botha and Martin Bezuidenhout all making the move across.
There has, however, been a significant exodus of players, including Nick Koster, who has joined English side Bath, Quinn Roux (Leinster), Tyrone Holmes (US Colomiers), Demetri Catrakilis (Southern Kings), Nick Fenton-Wells (Saracens), Yaya Hartzenberg (Pumas), Jebb Sinclair (London Irish) and Burton Francis (SWD Eagles).
The Stormers begin their 2013 campaign with a clash against three-time Super Rugby champions the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night. – Sapa