The Stormers will be a force in the playoffs if they continue to pursue a more tactical and intelligent approach, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Perhaps the defeat to the Sharks in round three was a blessing in disguise. Prior to that, the Stormers had won both of their matches against the Bulls and Cheetahs. The coaches and senior players had waxed lyrical about a fearless new approach that would win them fans as well as matches.
The 18-13 loss to the Sharks at Newlands provided the Stormers with a reality check. On that occasion, the Sharks outmuscled them at the point of contact. The Stormers played more rugby, but the Sharks controlled the flow of the contest. In the end, it wasn’t surprising to see Gary Gold’s side finishing on the right side of the result.
That loss as well as the playoff defeat to the Brumbies last year would have forced the Stormers coaches to face up to some uncomfortable truths. The fearless approach – at least the part which advocated headless-chicken running from goalline to goalline – was counter-productive in matches against the top teams. Robbie Fleck and company were forced to admit that the Stormers needed to be smarter if they hoped to succeed against the likes of Brumbies in 2016, and perhaps win a playoff match for the first time since 2010.
The 31-11 victory against the Brumbies this past Saturday must have been satisfying. While Fleck didn’t give much away at the post-match press conference, captain Juan de Jongh could not contain his excitement. De Jongh praised his coaching staff for a ‘brilliant game plan’. The result obviously factored into his reaction. And yet it was clear that the Stormers are starting to believe that there is a correlation between a more tactical approach and winning big games.
If this is the case, then the tactical triumph over the Brumbies could well be viewed as a turning point for the Cape franchise. Their performance at Newlands was far from perfect. But what was encouraging, was the Stormers’ intent to play the bulk of their rugby down in Brumbies territory.
It was the type of approach that one sees in big matches and finals all over the world. It’s an approach we haven’t seen from the Stormers since 2012. For those who have forgotten, the Stormers finished the league stage that season with 14 wins from 16 matches and at the top of the overall log.
What we saw at Newlands this past Saturday was a move towards total rugby – the brand played by the New Zealand franchises as well as the All Blacks. The latter side kicks more than any other team in Test rugby. And yet they manage to score tries because their players are so adept at contesting high kicks and winning the ball back. The Kiwis are particularly good from turnover ball, and rarely need a second invitation to finish.
The Stormers set piece stood up to the challenge presented by the Brumbies. The forwards outplayed their much-fancied counterparts at the breakdown. And on the back of that dominance, the Stormers halfbacks took good options, putting the ball into the air and kicking into the space behind the Brumbies defence.
There is, of course, room for improvement. While the Stormers did well to identify Aidan Toua as a potential weak point, their chase lines as well as the quality of their contesting in the air were below par. There was one big moment when Kobus van Wyk flew at the Brumbies fullback and regathered a high kick, a win that sparked a promising counter-attack. But that play by Van Wyk was a rare example of a good Stormers kick-chase.
The defence was disappointing at times. While the Stormers brought plenty of mongrel to the gainline fight, they were exposed on the left-hand flank on several occasions. Juan de Jongh made an error in judgement when he rushed up and missed Tevita Kuridrani in the first half. The Wallabies centre broke the line and then found Henry Speight with a beautiful pass. That could have been a turning point in the game.
Overall, the Stormers made a statement with their performance as well as the result. They remain on track to top the Africa 1 conference and secure a home playoff.
That said, they still need to travel overseas. They will head to Argentina this week to tackle the Jaguares. The trip to Buenos Aires will be their most difficult away match if one remembers that their sojourn in May includes less challenging fixtures against the Sunwolves in Singapore, the Rebels in Melbourne, and the Force in Perth.
There is still a long way to go in this tournament. But if the Stormers persist with the tactics that proved so successful against the Brumbies, if they strive to play smart rugby instead of entertaining rugby, they could well develop into serious title contenders.
Photo: Luke Walker/Gallo Images