Robbie Fleck is confident that his Stormers charges have what it takes to match the Brumbies at the breakdown this Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Stormers went into the 2015 qualifying playoff against the Brumbies as favourites. The Cape side had home advantage. They had the benefit of a week's rest, if you will recall that then coach Allister Coetzee rested his first-choice team for the Stormers' final league game against the Sharks.
At that point, the Brumbies were coming off a heavy defeat to the Crusaders. They were forced to travel from Canberra to Cape Town for the showdown with South Africa's top-ranked team. Few gave the Brumbies a chance of securing an upset.
When one reflects on the buildup to that match, one wonders how the Brumbies went on to smash the Stormers 39-19. The Australians were the more physical side over the course of the 80 minutes. They put as many as six tries past a normally sound Stormers defence.
This coming Saturday, the Brumbies will return to Newlands for the first time since that 20-point blowout. Many will ask whether the Stormers' mental scars have healed.
The bad news for the Stormers is that the Canberra-based side has found some early form in the 2016 tournament. The Brumbies have played a powerful brand of rugby that's earned them three wins in as many rounds. As scary as it sounds, they should be even stronger this Saturday than they were in the 2015 playoff.
Fleck was the Stormers assistant coach the last time the Brumbies visited Cape Town. He acknowledged that, on that occasion, the Brumbies outplayed the Stormers at the breakdown. He also noted the pressure applied by the Brumbies' tactical kickers and chasers. He conceded that the Stormers had no answer.
Coetzee has since moved on, and Fleck has been installed as head coach for the 2016 season. On Monday, Fleck dismissed suggestions that the defeat of 2015 is still in the back of many of the coaches and players' minds.
It's hard to believe. David Pocock, Scott Fardy and Ita Vaea were magnificent in that playoff. Pocock went on to star for the Wallabies in the Rugby Championship and subsequent World Cup. If the past three rounds of Super Rugby are anything to go by, the openside flank has carried his World Cup form through to the 2016 season.
Meanwhile, the Stormers are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sharks. Fleck, however, believes his side showed encouraging signs in that fixture, and that the performance of the new-look backrow of Nizaam Carr, Siya Kolisi and Schalk Burger bodes well for a meeting with the Brumbies.
Carr received a lot of plaudits for his showing at openside flank. It appears as if the move from No 8 to 6 has been good for the player.
'He brought a lot of attitude and physicality to the role,' said Fleck. 'He is playing No 6, but he is also looking to play that linking role. [The Sharks'] Marcell Coetzee was awarded Man of the Match for his breakdown performance last Saturday, but I felt Nizaam was pretty close to winning that award.
'The Brumbies are a side who tries to put their opponents under pressure at the lineout, breakdown and through their kicking game. That is where they beat us in the playoff last year,' Fleck continued.
'We have to put that behind us, though. I honestly believe that we've been playing some good attacking rugby this season. The first 40 or 50 minutes against the Sharks was some of the best rugby I've seen us play. There was some great continuity.
'I suppose it comes down to being a little bit smarter against the Brumbies this weekend. We showed the necessary hunger and got some momentum [against the Sharks], but then at the crucial moment just failed to find the space. If we can get that right this Saturday, we can break the dam wall.'
Locks Eben Etzebeth (food poisoning) and Pieter-Steph du Toit (neck) did not train with the team on Monday. Fleck said he expected both players to be available for the crunch match against the Brumbies.
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