Stormers lack smarts to advance

The Stormers won’t break their playoff curse until smarter decisions are taken in terms of tactics and player recruitment, writes JON CARDINELLI.

How many people can say that they were there when the Stormers lost to the Highlanders in the Super Rugby semi-final at Newlands in 1999? How many made the trek to Orlando Stadium to watch the Stormers lose to the Bulls in the 2010 final?

How about the five-playoff span at Newlands between 2011 and the present? How many of you out there pulled in for the semi-final losses to the Crusaders and Sharks in 2011 and 2012, or for the more recent capitulations to the Brumbies and Chiefs (two years running) in 2015, 2016 and 2017?

The answer is, too many. Indeed, for as long as the Super Rugby tournament has existed, the Stormers have endeavoured to find new and interesting ways to lose playoff matches. Sadly, the recent defeat to the Chiefs is no exception.

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I was there – albeit in the old scholars’ section in the main grandstand – when the Stormers went down to the Highlanders in the 1999 semi-final at Newlands. Years later, I covered the Cape side’s seven knockout games between 2010 and 2017 (six of those at Newlands).

In the wake of every Stormers playoff failure, the same questions have been asked by experts and laymen alike. Why do the Stormers lack the composure to win knockout matches, and what’s stopping the Stormers from taking steps to address the flaws in their tactical-kicking game?

Allister Coetzee said it himself after the 2010 final in Soweto. Coetzee, then the Stormers head coach, lamented the Cape side’s wayward kicking performance in that decider against the Bulls. It became a familiar lament, as the Stormers went on to lose the next five playoffs games in the very same fashion.

Following the most recent quarter-final clash at Newlands, coach Robbie Fleck conceded that his team had been tactically outplayed by the Chiefs. What may have annoyed those who have followed the Stormers story closely over the past seven years or so, was a familiar admission of the opposition’s excellence in terms of game plan and execution. According to the Stormers coach, the Chiefs won the territorial battle at Newlands on Saturday, and the Stormers simply did not apply enough pressure through the tactical-kicking boot.

More than that was the insistence by Fleck and company that the Stormers are on the right track, and that the 2017 season marks the second in a three-year cycle. The Stormers have played an attacking brand of rugby in recent months. They scored as many as 65 tries over the course of their campaign. On Saturday, Fleck hailed the team’s shift in mindset and suggested that the side was closing the gap on the better Kiwi Super Rugby sides.

The stats suggest otherwise, though. The Chiefs boast some of the best attacking players in the competition. That said, they have endeavoured to play a more balanced brand of rugby this year. There’s been a focus on defence that’s impacted on their try-scoring numbers. In a playoff situation, however, that strength in defence paid significant dividends.

The Chiefs’ defence, as well as a complementary kicking game, certainly didn’t hurt them at Newlands this past Saturday. Dave Rennie's side kept the Stormers, a side that ranked fourth overall for tries scored in the conference stage, to a single try. They kicked behind the Stormers back-three and won the territorial battle. The upshot was that the Stormers spent most of the match in their own half.

Afterwards, Fleck admitted that his players could have taken better tactical options. The Stormers back-three battled to live with the kicking game of the Chiefs, as well as the visitors' ball-carrying intentions in the wider channels. Chiefs winger James Lowe appeared to bump off would-be defenders at will.

Winger Dillyn Leyds has battled in previous playoffs, and was again exposed in the recent clash against the Chiefs. Fleck himself admitted that tactical and defensive errors were made by the Stormers back-three players. At the same time, he gave no indication that things will improve in the immediate future.

Raymond Rhule and Sergeal Petersen are expected to join the Stormers with the aim of offsetting the loss of Cheslin Kolbe, who is moving to Europe. The reality is that neither Rhule nor Petersen has the tactical-kicking or defensive presence to be a force in a Super Rugby playoff fixture.

Rhule was exposed defensively in the recent three-Test series against France. Say what you want about the diminutive Kolbe, but at least he has a decent kicking game. The recruitment of Rhule and Petersen is at odds with the Stormers’ public ambitions to improve.

It’s also hard to believe Fleck when he says that the Stormers have made great strides since 2016. A closer look at the stats of the past two seasons suggests that the Stormers have not progressed a great deal.

Granted, the Stormers played the New Zealand sides in 2017 and faced a sterner defensive challenge. And yet, their own defensive numbers must be cause for concern.

Can we really talk about progress at this stage? The Stormers won the same number of regular-season games in 2016 as they did in 2017 (10). They lost only one game more this season, which was to be expected given they were playing the five New Zealand sides rather than those weaker sides from Australia.

That said, something should be read into the fact that the Stormers leaked more than twice as many tries (61 to 28) and 50 more points than they did over the course of the 2016 conference stage. After failing to beat the Lions and Sharks last year, they lost to both teams again in 2017. Indeed, finishing at the top of Africa 1 was nothing to shout about, considering that the other teams in this group (the Cheetahs, Bulls and Sunwolves) finished 13th, 15th and 17th respectively in the overall standings.

The Stormers aren’t a mickey-mouse franchise. They aren’t in the Super Rugby tournament just to make up the numbers. Like the Bulls, Sharks, and more recently the Lions, the Stormers are one of South Africa’s biggest sides and thus big things are always going to be asked of them in terms of competing for the Super Rugby title.

The true measure of these teams is how they fare in the do-or-die clashes. Sadly, only the Bulls have managed to make a statement in this regard, winning titles in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Every other South African side, including the much-hyped Lions, still has everything to prove.

The Stormers fell short, and not for the first time, in the recent quarter-final against the Chiefs. Excuses have been made in the wake of each and every one of their eight playoff losses, and some may feel that some of those excuses are valid.

The bottom line, though, is that the Stormers, as one of South Africa’s biggest sides, are still without a Super Rugby title. Contrary to Fleck’s recent claims, the Cape side is no closer to claiming a title now than it was in 2016.

Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images

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