The Stormers seem to have found a winning method that is easily replicable and brings with it the promise of less heartache for their supporters, writes RYAN VREDE.
When I looked at their early fixture schedule preceding the start of Vodacom Super Rugby and assessed their potential to improve on a wretched 2014 campaign, I thought that the Stormers would be in trouble come early March. Instead they sit second on the overall log, having yet to lose despite two tricky away fixtures and one home victory against the unpredictable Blues.
There has been very little measure of fortune in how they've achieved those victories either. After two seasons in which they drifted between a pragmatic approach and an expansive one, often blending the two for an ugly and ineffective hybrid, they seem to have settled, employing both strategies with equal efficiency depending on the demands of the match situation. The collective's temperament and decision-making at critical times is also improving.
They are far from the potent team they could be, missing a couple of key tactical elements and personnel (the return of Schalk Burger and Eben Etzebeth should go a long way to remedying this), but their form is curving upwards.
I believe a better side would have punished them for their erratic tactical approach at Ellis Park. The Lions turned them over repeatedly at the breakdown but weren't able to hurt them from those broken-field situations. Yet that was a match the Stormers in their previous incompetent guise would have lost. The manner in which the Cape side kept pressing, taking the lead for the first team in the 77th minute, then summoning their famed defence in the breathless remaining minutes, was impressive.
Their try-scoring struggles, chronic over the past few seasons, haven't disappeared, and, together with injuries to key players, could be the primary obstacles to them mounting the type of challenge that could end with them contesting a home semi-final or even a final. That, however, is too far ahead to contemplate with any degree of seriousness at this point. What is clear is that, at present, they are no longer the soft target they were in the past two years.
The injection of youth into their squad has been amplified by the physicality those bucks have brought. Ruan Botha and Vincent Koch are chief among those, but recruit Bongi Mbonambi is a powerful defensive force in general play and a solid scrummager (his lineout feeding needs serious attention, though) as well. In the back division, players like Damien de Allende, Nic Groom, Demetri Catrakilis, Dillyn Leyds and Cheslin Kolbe have settled or are settling quickly, all appearing to understand and be able to negotiate Super Rugby's unique demands. Furthermore, for the first time since the period between 2010 and 2012 they've finally got a bench that looks imposing. The strength of the collective will be further bolstered by the aforementioned injury returnees (among others).
They face the Springbok-laden Sharks at Newlands on Saturday in what will be the greatest measure of their improvement. Winning their home matches, irrespective of the strength of the opposition, is essential, and the quality of their performance will be telling in the context of their ambitions this season.
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