The Stormers’ defence will have everything to prove in the quarter-final against the Chiefs following an inconsistent and at times embarrassing performance across the conference stage, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Remember the Stormers side that beat the Chiefs 34-26 in round eight? That was a team worthy of applause. That was a team that appeared destined for big things in the 2017 playoffs.
The win against the Chiefs marked the Stormers’ sixth-consecutive victory. The performance showed that South African teams, and the Stormers in particular, could match the better Kiwi sides for physicality, intensity and fitness. The defensive display by the Stormers on that occasion was New Zealand-esque.
Round eight feels like a long time ago, though. Indeed, the Stormers’ standards have dropped significantly in the ensuing three months.
In the wake of the victory against the Chiefs, the Stormers lost five of their next nine matches. They finished the conference stage having conceded a whopping 61 tries – more than twice as many as the Chiefs (30).
The stats show how Dave Rennie’s side has grown stronger as the season has progressed. The Chiefs finished the conference stage with 12 wins, one draw, and two losses.
While much has been made about their comparatively modest try-scoring record (which is unfair, given they've accumulated 55 tries and six try-scoring bonus-point wins), more should be read into a defensive record that is, at this stage, only second to that of the Lions.
The Stormers and Chiefs have similar stats across most attacking categories. Both have missed around 20 tackles per game, and yet the Chiefs have proved twice as effective at denying opposition tries after a linebreak or tackle bust.
The Chiefs have every reason to feel confident in the lead-up to a quarter-final meeting with the Stormers. For starters, they thrashed the Cape side 60-21 in the playoff at Newlands last year.
Overall, the Stormers have lost seven out of eight knockout matches – five of the six played at Newlands. They’ve faced a New Zealand side four times at this stage of the competition, and have lost on each and every occasion.
Again, a lot can be read into how the Stormers have fared on defence in past playoff fixtures. They leaked eight tries in the quarter-final against the Chiefs in 2016. The 39-19 defeat to the Brumbies in the 2015 playoff saw the Cape side conceding six tries.
The Chiefs have bolstered their defence in the lead-up to the coming quarter-final at Newlands. They haven’t scored the most tries in the tournament this season, but they have racked up significant wins against the Hurricanes (home and away), the Highlanders and Brumbies – teams that have all qualified for the next round of this year's tournament.
As Rennie said on Tuesday, the Chiefs are playing playoff rugby and they know how to win the crunch matches. Opposition teams have found it hard to breach their defence or to counter their kicking game.
The Stormers have won four matches since that unforgettable victory against the Chiefs in round eight. That record includes recent wins against the Cheetahs, Bulls and Sunwolves, teams that finished 13th, 15th and 17th respectively in the overall standings.
Misfiring performances against some of the weakest teams in the tournament so close to the playoffs are cause for concern. The Cape side leaked 82 points and 11 tries across those three games.
The playoffs are here, and unless the Stormers make a mental and tactical shift, they will add another loss to their tally.
Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images