Stormers stifled by indecision

The disappointing draw in Singapore highlighted the flaws in the Stormers’ tactics and selection policy, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Who are the Stormers? What are they trying to achieve by changing their starting XV so frequently? Why are they so reluctant to invest in a playing style that will transform them into real contenders for the Super Rugby crown?

It’s been hard to take the Stormers seriously in 2016. From the outset, the teams in the Africa 1 conference enjoyed an advantage over those in Africa 2 as their schedule precluded matches against the New Zealand sides. From the beginning of the tournament, it was clear that any success for the teams in Africa 1 would have to be viewed in context.

We’re now 12 rounds into the competition, and it’s still hard to say where this Stormers side stands. While they’ve done enough to maintain their lead at the top of the Africa 1 conference, they haven’t exactly impressed with their performances or results.

The losses to the Sharks (at Newlands) and Lions highlighted the gap in quality between the two African conferences. The defeat to the Waratahs at Newlands in round 10 was unexpected, as was the draw to the new Japanese franchise, the Sunwolves, in round 12.

The irony is that the Stormers do have what it takes to be a relative success in this competition. They’ve already proved this through the balanced displays against the Brumbies and Jaguares. The big question is why they have opted to move away from that template in subsequent rounds, and why they have changed their back row so frequently.

One can appreciate that every team has to manage its resources over the course of a lengthy Super Rugby season, and that Springbok players need to be rested at certain points in the competition. However, what’s been harder to understand is why they have shunned continuity and embraced experimentation.

It wouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the management is still undecided about the Stormers’ best back-row combination, even at this late stage. Indeed, it’s been unclear as to where certain players should be deployed.

Is Sikhumbuzo Notshe an openside or a blindside flank? Is Siya Kolisi better utilised from the bench? Should Nizaam Carr be shifted to openside on a permanent basis given Schalk Burger provides a more versatile option at No 8?

Coach Robbie Fleck may argue that by rotating these players and by experimenting with new combinations he is creating more options for the Stormers in the long run. However, Fleck has failed to select the same starting back row for more than two consecutive matches this season, and that has to have some impact on the players' ability to settle into defined roles or grow as loose-trio unit.

To date, Burger has not started three matches in a row in the same position. Neither has Carr or Notshe. Kolisi has been used exclusively as a blindsider when he has started, and appeared to be finding some form when he started four consecutive matches earlier this season (against the Sharks, Brumbies, Jaguares and Sunwolves at Newlands).

The Stormers have lost three and drawn one thus far. In all four of those matches, the Stormers loose forwards have been outplayed by more physical and technically savvy counterparts.

In years gone by, the Stormers boasted a reputation for their breakdown prowess. In 2016, they have failed to fire consistently at the rucks and collisions, and have been duly punished.

The losses to the Sharks and Lions would have stung. The recent draw to the Sunwolves would have felt like a defeat. The Stormers were rattled at the breakdown by the less fancied Japanese forwards. It reminded one of the Boks’ limp forward display against Japan at the 2015 World Cup.

The Stormers trailed 14-3 at the break. They changed tactics in the second half, and endeavoured to win the gainline battle before moving the ball to the wider channels. They also kicked more in the second stanza. By lifting their physicality and varying their play between running and kicking, they posed a greater threat.

It wouldn’t surprise to see the Stormers employing similar tactics at Loftus Versfeld in the next round. This game plan proved effective against the Brumbies and Jaguares earlier in the season, and ultimately spared the Cape side an embarrassing defeat to the Sunwolves in Singapore.

The success of this game plan hinges on a big forward effort, and much will be expected of the Stormers’ starting back row. Fleck needs to get his selections right for the match against the Bulls, and also needs to consider what combination can bring the Stormers success further down the line.

Photo: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli