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Waratahs in eye of storm

CAPE TOWN, May 21 – The odds seem stacked against the New South Wales Waratahs when they meet Western Stormers in a Super 14 southern hemisphere championship semi-final at Newlands Saturday.Waratahs were beaten 27-6 by Stormers at the same venue during the round-robin phase of the competition and will have to overturn that form and also beat what has become an almost insurmountable hurdle for away teams in Super 14 semi-finals.

It is eight years since an away team last won a semi-final with Waratahs defeated by fellow Australian side ACT Brumbies in 2002.

The necessity of flying to South Africa after playing their final group game in Sydney makes the task even more difficult for the Tahs.

But there is encouragement for the Waratahs in the fact that three of the four defeats suffered by the Stormers this season have been against Australian sides while before this season, the Australians had won three and drawn one of their previous five matches against the Stormers, including a win and a draw in Cape Town.

In their only other appearance in a home semi-final, Stormers were beaten 33-18 by Otago Highlanders in 1999.

Stormers backline coach and former Springbok centre Robbie Fleck was part of the 1999 team and he told a local newspaper the current side were better equipped to deal with the pressure of home-town expectations.

"In 1999, that week went by so fast. We had a run of six games at Newlands, we were winning and there was great excitement. We were a young side who were playing inspirational rugby and we got caught up in the hype. Before we knew it, we were in a semi-final and we were outplayed."

The current team have played some thrilling rugby, anchored by the most effective defence in the competition. The tight forwards have been solid, with lock Andries Bekker having an inspired season, while the loose trio of captain Schalk Burger, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen have been outstanding.

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The biggest improvement in the Stormers team has been in the finishing of a backline bolstered by the signing of Boks Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana.

Waratahs flew into South Africa on Sunday evening after an impressive 32-16 home win over Wellington Hurricanes in what was effectively a knockout game.

Instead of going straight to Cape Town, they opted to do most of their preparation in Durban, a two-hour flight away.

The Australian side finished third on the log, a single bonus-point behind the Stormers, with both teams winning nine matches and losing four.

Waratahs have lost two key forwards in eighthman Wycliff Palu and prop Benn Robinson through injury but have an inspirational captain in flank Phil Waugh and some outstanding backs, including fly-half Berrick Barnes, fullback Kurtley Beale and wings Lachlan Turner and Drew Mitchell.

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