The Stormers and Springboks hope Jaco Taute’s second coming brings with it the attacking weaponry that can shape their seasons, writes RYAN VREDE.
And then the Stormers’ great attacking hope was scythed down, his knee forced so violently out of place that it appeared it may tear through his flesh.
You could hear his screams of agony from the stands, and after the slow-motion replay played out his nightmare, frame by gruesome frame, you knew his season was over. Some feared worse. Some thought it may be the end of a professional career that started at 19 and promised much. There was a real possibility that a player who had taken so comfortably to Super Rugby, one who was at the forefront of the emerging group of gifted young Springboks, would be resigned to a lifetime of watching the game he excelled at from his couch.
Taute’s injury significantly compromised the Stormers’ ability to play a more balanced game. They had evolved into the tournament’s great repellers, building their success on defence of military precision and force. But it came at the expense of their attacking game, which was crying out for an injection of flair, intelligence and invention. They had recruited Taute from the Lions for this very purpose. His class shone through at the Johannesburg-based franchise, despite the limitations of most of his team-mates, and his arrival in the Cape elicited cries of celebration from a fraternity of supporters who were desperately looking for reasons to believe the Stormers’ investment would yield a return.
Stripped of Taute’s attacking capabilities and with the team’s other thrill machines handicapped by questionable tactics and a coaching staff lacking the capacity to improve their attacking game and maximise their (appreciable) resources, the Stormers were found out. Having topped the combined log and hosted a semi-final in 2012, they regressed to a seventh-place finish – only the Force and Kings scored fewer tries than they did (30).
Then there was the impact of his absence on the Springboks. Taute had made a strong start to his Test career in 2012, where coach Heyneke Meyer deployed him as an outside centre with a view to him later settling at fullback. The Springboks, having absorbed Meyer’s philosophy and strategy, improved dramatically on their performances of the previous season, particularly on attack. However, it is legitimate to wonder just how much better they could have been with Taute, who had gained a fair understanding of the demands of Test rugby, at their disposal.
'He offers you so much from fullback on attack and defence, but mostly attack' – Heyneke Meyer
‘It was a significant blow not to have Jaco available to us last year,’ Meyer says. ‘I liked what I saw from him and it must be remembered that he was playing those games in a position he wasn’t entirely comfortable in, against Australia, New Zealand and Ireland in Dublin. That’s a pretty tough introduction to Test rugby and that he came through the experience as well as he did said a lot about his talent and mental strength.
‘It was clear that in 2013 we were a little thin on options at fullback and Jaco would have been a big part of that solution. He offers you so much from there on attack and defence, but mostly attack. He makes good decisions quickly and has the ability to hurt you from broken field because of his skills, size and speed. It is a dimension of the game we’re constantly looking to improve on.
‘He can also gain you massive yardage with his boot and has the long-range penalty in his box of tricks, which we lost when Johan Goosen and Frans Steyn were injured. It plays on the opposition’s mind and affects their tactics when they know you have a kicker who can sink penalties from 50m-plus range.
‘Also, he would have benefited tremendously from being able to tap into the experience and knowledge of guys like Jaque Fourie and Fourie du Preez, who weren’t there for his debut season. That would have been a valuable and critical part of his growth as a player. But that being said, he is surrounded by experienced Boks at the Stormers and he’ll learn loads off them.’
At the time of writing, Taute was back in training with the Stormers, having made his loan move from the Lions permanent. It says everything about how highly the franchise rates him that they were willing to offer him a lucrative deal on the evidence of a handful of performances.
So the Stormers and Springbok faithful hold their breath in the hope that Taute doesn’t suffer a recurrence of the injury or indeed sustain any others. What he has the potential to give them from an attacking perspective is considerable, says Taute’s former coach at the Lions, John Mitchell.
‘He is a fine all-round player, with a wide range of attacking skills with ball in hand and off his boot, so he can adapt to the demands of the match situation. There’s also his versatility – he is primarily a fullback, but can play on the wing, or in either of the midfield positions if needed.
‘I think it’s pretty obvious that the Stormers have major concerns about the effectiveness of their attacking game. To heap the responsibility for improving that on a young man’s shoulders is unfair. But he can ease their worries significantly provided certain criteria are met.
‘How influential he is depends on the coaching staff and the pack’s skill in being able to engineer high-quality opportunities for the backline. You can’t expect any player to thrive when the space and time is consistently not there, or when he is asked to attack a set defensive line from deep in his territory. But given the right kind of possession, Jaco can be a massive asset.’
– This article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine