The most successful South African franchise, the beaten finalists and the defending champions. That is the challenge awaiting the Stormers at the start of 2013.
They may be the Currie Cup champions and have won the South African Super Rugby conference for the past two years, but the Stormers are not expecting any favours from their opponents in the opening three weeks of the new campaign.
It all starts with the traditional north-south derby, against the three-time champion Bulls at Loftus Versfeld next Friday (February 22), then from Pretoria the Stormers head to Durban to take on the Sharks, beaten finalists last year, before they play their first home game, taking on the defending champion Chiefs at Newlands.
Stormers captain Schalk Burger was not trying to trivialise the matter, but his remark that the Cape franchise has a "tough start" was certainly underplaying the Augean nature of the challenge.
"We are trying to be realistic about it," Burger said, when quizzed about his team's start to the season.
"We have the Bulls and Sharks away, and then the Chiefs [at home]," he said, adding: "In a perfect world you want to go three-from-three.
"We had a look at it and we would rather have them at the start than the last three games.
"Yes, it is going to be tough, but we are just concentrating on our own game.
"We know what the Bulls are going to throw at us, so we try to improve our game and limit our mistakes."
The Stormers skipper said they are determined to rid themselves of the unwanted tag as a defensive, stodgy team that plays only to win and don't entertain enough.
"Last year we were pretty sound defensively," Burger said, adding: "We are now trying to get our attack up to par, which maybe it wasn't at times last year."
While they are looking forward to the encounter with the Bulls with some excitement, the Stormers know that winning in Pretoria is a tall order.
Another motivating factor is that the Stormers are determined to add a Super Rugby trophy (not just the South African conference trophy) to the Currie Cup Western Province won last year.
"Jean [de Villiers], Andries [Bekker] and I missed that [Currie Cup Final] win [through injury]," he said.
"We attended the celebrations - it may have looked like we won it, but we weren't part of it [the winning team].
"The big toffee [sticking point] is to win Super Rugby.
"We have given ourselves some opportunities, but unfortunately we haven't [won it]," Burger said of their results over the last three years - beaten finalists in 2010, as well as beaten semifinalists in 2011 and 2012.
"Hopefully we can get there this year, but it is a very long way off.
"We first have to get through these first three weeks.
"The season is so long that you have to break it down in stages.
"For us it is the first three games, then we have a bye and then we'll re-assess it after that - we'll take stock and see where we are."
By Jan de Koning
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