The Stormers’ defensive and tactical meltdown in Dunedin should serve as a lesson to every South African team, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Remember the Stormers’ 34-26 win against the Chiefs in round seven? Remember how Chiefs coach Dave Rennie praised the Stormers forwards for their low body height at the rucks, their ferocity at the collisions, and their superior attitude and fitness over the decisive fourth quarter of the contest?
Remember what Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said in the aftermath about his charges setting down a marker? Remember how Fleck demanded a lift in physicality in the games that followed?
Since that heady evening at Newlands, the Stormers have lost three matches in succession. They’ve suffered record defeats to the Crusaders and to the Highlanders.
The Stormers conceded 57 points in Christchurch and 57 points in Dunedin. They missed a total of 57 tackles across the two contests. That number has a special significance in a national context when one remembers the 57 points conceded against the All Blacks in the record defeat in Durban last year.
The reaction to recent results has been predictable. Stormers fans have demanded accountability for the gutless performances and embarrassing results in New Zealand. More than a few fans of other South African franchises have watched the Cape side’s meltdown with schadenfreudic glee.
It's been plain to see that the Stormers have forgotten about Rennie's praise in the wake of that important win against the Chiefs. They have not worked as hard to win the collisions and breakdowns in subsequent fixtures against the Lions, Crusaders and Highlanders, and their defence has been compromised as a result. Captain Siya Kolisi said as much himself in the post-match interview that followed the blowout in Dunedin.
South African teams continue to pay a heavy price for what amounts to arrogance and tactical naivety. After scoring a rare win against the All Blacks in 2014, the Boks were smashed on the field as well as on the scoreboard (29-15) by a pragmatic Ireland side.
Last year, the Lions were humbled in similar fashion. A historic win against the Chiefs in Hamilton was followed by a 34-15 defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin. The Lions bounced back to claim wins against the Sharks, Stormers and Kings. However, they went into the next clash against the Hurricanes with the wrong attitude and tactical approach, and were duly hammered 50-17.
The good news for South African fans is that the Lions are playing with more focus and balance in 2017. This much was evident when they beat the Stormers in a forward-oriented battle at Newlands in round eight. Their record of eight wins in nine games is underscored by defensive numbers that read 211 points and 21 tries conceded.
The Lions currently rank in the top five teams for the most tries scored and for the fewest tries conceded. Despite qualifying for the final in 2016, they have endeavoured to bolster their defence and add some variety to their attack.
Ackermann and company will know that the Lions are yet to be really challenged in this year's campaign. The Lions have suffered one loss this season, and that defeat to the Jaguares can be partially attributed to Ackermann’s decision to send a second-string side to Argentina in order to cotton-wool his star players.
The Lions are still building towards an inevitable clash with a New Zealand side in the playoffs. Until then, they won’t know how far they have progressed in terms of their breakdown performance, and in the key departments of tactical kicking and defence.
The recent showings by the other sides should serve to keep the Lions grounded, though. Indeed, in round 10, South African rugby was reminded about the gap that exists between local sides and those based in New Zealand.
For the Stormers, one of South Africa’s better Super Rugby sides, that gap was 43 points. For the Cheetahs, a South African side playing at home against the Crusaders, that gap was 27 points.
The Stormers will have plenty to prove in their final tour match against the Hurricanes. A clash against the defending champions in Wellington would be a daunting prospect for any side, let alone a team coming off two 50-point beatings.
While the Crusaders top the Australasian log, the Hurricanes have scored more points and tries than any other side in the tournament. They have conceded the fewest points and the second-fewest tries.
They’ve been a joy to watch on attack, but they’ve also set the standard with their physicality and organisation on defence. While he is better known for his distribution and darts at the line, Beauden Barrett is ranked second in the tournament for kicks from hand. The Hurricanes are the complete package.
Nobody should expect the Stormers to win in Wellington. However, what South African fans should demand at the very least is a change in attitude that leads to an improvement at the gainline and on defence.
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