The Stormers made a physical and mental statement in the decisive fourth quarter against the Chiefs, writes JON CARDINELLI.
‘I hope you lads enjoyed that. It must have been a good game to watch,’ said Chiefs coach Dave Rennie as he took his seat at the post-match press conference at Newlands.
The clash between South Africa’s best-placed Super Rugby side and the most balanced team in New Zealand lived up to its billing as a spectacle. From the outrageous moments of invention to the crowd-raising finishing to the fatigue-defying defending at the death, this was a contest that had it all.
This was the best contest witnessed at Newlands for the better part of a decade. This was a South Africa-New Zealand rugby story with an atypical ending, and nobody seemed more surprised by the twist than the Chiefs coach himself.
Afterwards, Rennie said that the Chiefs felt that they would overtake the Stormers in the final 20 minutes. ‘Clearly they’ve done a lot of conditioning work since we met them last year [in the quarter-final, which the Chiefs won 60-21].’
The importance of this performance, both in the context of the Stormers’ 2017 campaign and South African rugby’s drive to close the gap between the Springboks and the All Blacks, cannot be overstated.
The Lions matched the Kiwi teams for attacking intent and fitness in 2016. Through their first display against a New Zealand opponent in 2017, the Stormers have shown that they too can outlast some of the best conditioned athletes in the game. The progress and evolution of these South African teams is worth celebrating.
We cannot forget about the Boks’ results in 2016. We cannot ignore the contradictions and mixed messages that have become the trademark of every Allister Coetzee press conference.
We need to keep asking questions about the national team’s long-term plans. We need to keep asking why some coaches – defence consultant Brendan Venter specifically – won’t be around at the end of the Test series against France. We should be concerned about the steep decline of the Bulls, who recently became the first South African side to lose to the Sunwolves.
These are dark times for South African rugby. Fortunately, the Stormers and Lions are providing a ray of light.
On Saturday evening, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said that his players have made a physical and mental shift in 2017. According to Fleck, the players have started to believe that they can make the big attacking plays and defensive hits when their bodies are fatigued.
‘They know they won’t die if they push themselves that little bit harder,’ Fleck quipped.
The Lions’ stats speak for themselves. The New Zealand teams are known for their second-half surges, and no Kiwi side has been more impressive in the latter stages than the Crusaders. Yet a closer look at the stats reveals that the Lions have scored just as many tries (11) as the Crusaders in the fourth quarter.
It would be a stretch to suggest that this is a sign that the Boks will beat the All Blacks later this year. For starters, the setup at the Lions and Stormers is very different to that at the Boks. And to be fair to Coetzee and company, Test rugby is a different beast to Super Rugby.
What cannot be denied is that progress has been made. After breezing past poor teams like the Bulls, Kings, Sunwolves and Cheetahs, the Stormers have collected a meaningful scalp. They have scored four tries against a Chiefs side that conceded just six in its first five matches. They have outplayed a Kiwi side in the decisive final quarter of a game to come away with the spoils.
The challenge for the Stormers from hereon in is consistency – especially against New Zealand teams, and beyond that, victory in a playoff match.
The Lions produced a mixed bag against the Kiwis last year, losing three out of five in the regular season and then winning a quarter-final against the Crusaders and a semi-final against the Highlanders. In the final against the Hurricanes, the Lions were outplayed by a side with a superior defence and kicking game.
The Stormers’ recent win against the Chiefs was their first success against a Kiwi team since the victory against the Blues in February 2015. They have never beaten a New Zealand side in a playoff match, and haven’t won any sort of knockout game since 2010. These are the records that one needs to bear in mind before making statements about the Stormers’ destiny in the 2017 tournament.
There’s little doubt that they have turned a corner and that the fourth-quarter performance against the Chiefs was their best in recent years. The result and display at Newlands came at a time when many were starting to believe that the New Zealanders simply couldn’t be matched for fitness and intent. Indeed, up until the result at Newlands on Saturday, no New Zealand side had lost to a foreign team in 2017.
As Fleck put it on Saturday, the win against the Chiefs should be viewed as the start rather than the end of a special journey. If the Stormers continue to pursue a bold attacking approach, and at the same time refine their defence and kicking game, they – along with the ever-improving Lions – could give South African rugby fans more reasons to cheer in the coming months.
Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images