The Sharks are heading in the right direction, while the Stormers are losing their way, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The log can be misleading, especially at this point of the season. The Stormers may top the South African conference, but they are not the best-placed team in the country. Their recent performance against the Chiefs highlighted several shortcomings, and there is plenty to rectify before they depart for a season-defining tour to Australasia.
The Stormers were outsmarted and outlasted by the Chiefs this past Saturday. Meanwhile, in Bloemfontein, the Sharks scored four tries in their 27-10 demolition of the Cheetahs. While the Stormers look to be on the slide, the Sharks are definitely on the rise.
The Durban franchise began the season in insipid fashion, losing three of their first four games. And yet, the most recent performance in Bloem was encouraging. While it was far from polished, certain individuals as well as the collective are starting to gather momentum.
That forward pack is starting to fire. The players who returned from Japan over the past two weeks are starting to settle, and we can expect the likes of Ryan Kankowski, Frans Steyn, and JP Pietersen to improve as the season unfolds. Pat Lambie is another who will grow stronger in the coming months.
The Sharks are in the right space to host a team like the Chiefs. They will look to target the Chiefs’ shaky scrum to greater effect. They will also look to kick accurately and force the Chiefs to do much of their running from within their own 22.
The first mistake the Stormers made in the buildup to the Chiefs match was to select a new halfback pairing. Nic Groom and Demetri Catrakilis, particularly the latter, had been key to the Cape side’s success in previous matches.
We saw Western Province make the same mistake in the Currie Cup last year. The only two games they lost were the matches in which Kurt Coleman started ahead of Catrakilis. In 2015, the Stormers have won four with Catrakilis at No 10, and lost one when Coleman has assumed the responsibilities.
Both have proved excellent goal-kickers for the Stormers, but only one has the ability to play the Cape side into good field positions. The Stormers missed Catrakilis in this respect on Saturday. Coleman's tactical probes were poorly directed, and ultimately handed the Chiefs counter-attacking opportunities.
Why the criticism after one loss? Well, history shows us that the Stormers coaches are slow learners. After losing that 2010 Super 14 final against the Bulls because of an inferior kicking performance, it took them nearly five years to acquire a top kicking coach (Vlok Cilliers was signed at the back end of 2014). It may be some time before they realise that Coleman is not the answer at No 10.
Cape rugby fans will hope they realise the truth sooner rather than later. After enjoying a bye this week, the Stormers will face the grueling challenge of playing seven matches in a row. This includes a four-match tour to Australasia. This is a defining period in their season, as if they lose three or four Down Under, as well as a couple of key players to injury, they may struggle to bounce back upon their return to South Africa.
Their scrum has been impressive, they have a good leader in Duane Vermeulen, and the sooner they back Schalk Burger to start the better. But that forward dominance will count for nothing unless there is a flyhalf at the helm who can translate it into territory and points. Catrakilis needs to be installed as their No 1 pivot, and then they need to hope like hell he doesn’t break down.
The Stormers will begin their tour with a match against the Highlanders, who count the Chiefs and Waratahs as their most recent victims. Their tour then takes them to the north island to play the Hurricanes, who look to be the form team in the tournament.
The Australian leg of their tour includes a visit to Sydney, where they will play the current champions. The final stop is in Perth where they may be under pressure to beat the Force. If that isn't bad enough, they will play the Bulls at Newlands when they return to South Africa.
As for the Sharks, their next performance against the Chiefs will be revealing. A solid win against the Chiefs will give them some momentum as they head into three more home games against the Force, Crusaders and Bulls. The only away game they will need to negotiate during this period is the Lions at Ellis Park. Significantly, that derby in Johannesburg will represent the Lions’ ninth game on the bounce. The Sharks would be expected to punish a tired Lions side.
The Sharks certainly have the quality in depth and, as recently witnessed in the match against the Cheetahs, the game plan, to win the bulk of their next five games. This will see them in a good position before they tour Australasia in May.
The Stormers may be in a very different position by that stage. Unless they remedy their tactical ails and back the right players in the coming games, they will undo all that they achieved in the opening four rounds.
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