SA’s best fail to inspire hope

The disappointing derby at Newlands showed why South Africa’s best teams could be also-rans rather than genuine title contenders in the play-offs, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Stormers have taken the lead at the top of the South African conference. That is the upshot of Saturday’s 15-13 result at Newlands.

Perhaps that is the only thing the Cape side really cares about. According to the log, they are the very best that South Africa has to offer in this competition. Their record against local opposition this season (four straight wins) is further evidence of the fact.

But don’t pop the champagne just yet. There’s very little reason to get excited. Now is the time for analysis, reflection, and above all, honesty.

Indeed, if not for Handré Pollard’s missed penalty in the 62nd minute, and that superb defensive read by Duane Vermeulen at the very end of the derby at Newlands, the Stormers would have lost. And a loss may have forced them to face up to some very uncomfortable truths.

Vermeulen continues to carry this Stormers side. He made some timely breakdown steals in the first half of that derby. He kept his head when other Stormers players were losing theirs. He made the crucial decision to charge Pollard when the Bulls flyhalf shaped to kick a drop goal in the 79th minute. And in that instant, his defensive execution was once again spot on.

In the buildup to the north-south derby, one Cape Town newspaper had suggested that it was time to swap the accurate boot of Demetri Catrakilis for the high-risk, high-reward running style of second-string pivot Kurt Coleman. Interestingly, it was the accuracy of Catrakilis that went a long way towards clinching the result (a five-from-five goal-kicking performance and all 15 of the Stormers’ points). The unforced errors by Coleman so nearly cost the Stormers in the latter stages.

But again, let's not be too quick to celebrate. After all, it is the best match 23 that prevails in the big play-off matches rather than the side with two or three game-breakers.

The result at Newlands was an important one in the context of the Stormers’ campaign. However, as Allister Coetzee admitted in the aftermath, the performance was far from polished and the Cape side was simply ‘fortunate that we had Duane Vermeulen. That rugby brain and never-say-die attitude is something you cannot coach’.

Where Coetzee was less honest was in his evaluation of the Stormers’ attack. The Cape side scored one try in their previous match against the Force (a penalty try was awarded following a series of scrum infringements by the Perth side). The Stormers failed to score a try at Newlands this past Saturday. And yet, Coetzee feels that his side are getting ready to turn a corner. It's hard to share that enthusiasm when you see the Stormers battling to secure their own lineout ball, or spilling so much ball in contact.

Indeed, it's hard to be optimistic about any of South Africa’s Vodacom Super Rugby teams at this point. The Stormers played with intensity this past Saturday, but no great accuracy, intelligence or composure. There were individuals who stood out, but the greater collective seemed to panic in those final minutes. Eleven rounds into the competition, and they are yet to produce a team performance that suggests they’re ready to challenge for the title.

A victory for the Bulls on Saturday would have done nothing to alleviate similar concerns. There are individual Springboks who are playing well, but collectively there has been no real conviction in the performances. The displays by the Sharks, Cheetahs and Lions have been just as patchy.

There was a lot at stake in that top-of-the-conference clash at Newlands. So much was expected, and yet, both collectives delivered a disappointment. It was a tense and dramatic affair, but only because neither side managed to close the game out in those final minutes.

I doubt that any one of New Zealand’s top sides will fear a battle with the Bulls or Stormers in the play-offs. South Africa's best teams are still struggling to control and ultimately close out the big contests.

Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images

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