STORMERS coach Allister Coetzee yesterday insisted that their break before the Super Rugby semifinal was a "bonus" rather than a disruption to their momentum, and said their status as log-leaders proved that playing winning rugby as opposed to flashy rugby paid off.
In a fantastic finale to the round-robin stages last weekend, the Stormers succeeded in their mission to leapfrog the Chiefs to the top of the log for a home semifinal and a guaranteed home final if they progress that far, while the Bulls and Sharks registered bonus-point wins to book their quarterfinal spots.
But while the Sharks departed for Australia on Sunday and the Bulls flew to New Zealand yesterday, Coetzee and his assistants were hard at work preparing for their clash next week, while the players had the luxury of a hard-earned break.
Coetzee adopted a positive view on their one-week break, although most coaches prefer to maintain momentum going into knockout games, and said it had advantages.
"We view this week as a bonus, rather than a break that could disrupt our momentum," said Coetzee. "Aside from giving us more time to plan for the semifinal, it allows the players a few days off to do other things so they can come back mentally and physically fresh.
"Over and above that, it will give Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen more time to recover from their knee injuries. But we will only make a call on their availability on Thursday, when the team get together, because we will know then if they are able to train with the rest of the players."
Given the intense criticism of the Stormers' inability to earn bonus-point tries this season, Coetzee hit back, saying their view that winning matches was more important than hunting bonus points had proved true. "This is one of the best seasons in Stormers' history and I am proud of the players for achieving that," he said. "Everyone worked hard to get here and it took a special effort to overcome some of the injuries.
"Finishing at the top of log also vindicated our view that winning games was all that mattered, especially given the criticism levelled at us for not scoring bonus points. The important thing now will be to go out there and finish the job. We said from the outset that winning this competition requires earning home play-off matches, and we have achieved that."
Focusing on his team's form, he singled out converting try-scoring chances into points as one of the areas they would like to improve.
Coetzee and Sharks coach John Plumtree agreed that having three South African teams finish in the top six was a huge achievement and said it served as a testament to the high standard of rugby in the country.
"This not only paints a fair picture of the quality of rugby being played by our top teams, it also shows how well the sides have planned and prepared," said Coetzee.
"This was the first season the proper version of the expanded Super Rugby season came into play because we had a Rugby World Cup last year, and having three teams in the play-offs shows that our teams planned correctly."
Said Plumtree: "It is outstanding. It is a huge achievement. It definitely shows the depth we have in this country and I am sure (Springbok coach) Heyneke Meyer is very pleased about that.
"This will allow all three teams to gain experience at a top level again, which is great."
Looking ahead to the weekend's clashes, Coetzee said the Bulls and Sharks have what it takes to win overseas, especially since the margins are small in the finals as teams focus on getting the basics right rather than playing flashy rugby.
But he admitted that the home teams will have a slight edge because they will have the crowds behind them and will have been spared the rigours of travelling.