The Australasian leg of the Stormers' campaign will be critical to their tournament ambitions, writes RYAN VREDE.
The Stormers started their Vodacom Super Rugby season well, losing just once, and sit in third place going into their tour opener against the Highlanders on Saturday. It's a game they can reasonably expect to win, particularly if they execute their defensive game plan successfully. They certainly didn't do so in the defeat to the Chiefs at Newlands a fortnight ago. The New Zealanders represented the sternest test of the Stormers' play-off credentials to date and the hosts failed to negotiate their challengers' primary threats effectively enough to retain their unbeaten record.
The Landers won't examine the Stormers' defensive structure in the manner the Chiefs were able to. They have neither the calibre of personnel nor the tactical intelligence to do so. Their nine-try haul in five matches suggests they've struggled to break down well-organised defensive teams who limit their broken-field opportunities and starve them of possession in threatening field positions. That said, they are equipped to hurt sides who slip into a tactical slumber, as the Stormers did against the Chiefs for periods of that contest.
The Stormers lost four from four on the road in 2014, and while that schedule pitted them against some of the tournament's stronger sides on their own patches (Crusaders, Chiefs, Brumbies and Reds) than this one does (Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs and Force), they will have to capitalise on a kinder schedule if they are to return home with their campaign still firmly on the rails.
Their touring record of late is poor, having lost all but one of their last eight matches. Given that record, a 50% return would be a good and realistic outcome for the Cape side, with Saturday's match in Dunedin and the one against the Force their best chances of getting those two victories.
The Stormers won 21-6 when they last played in Dunedin, grinding out a result that would kick off a very good tour in which they won three from four matches. That, however, was a significantly more experienced group than the current one is. The youngsters may well be inspired by the novelty of their situation, which would then work to the Stormers' favour. The young bucks' mettle will be tested, probably most in Wellington and Sydney, and the Stormers management are sure to find out more about their mental constitution in the coming weeks.
The fact that, upon their return from the trip Down Under, the Stormers have a sequence of fixtures they can realistically expect to win if they play to potential, amplifies the importance of the tour results. That, however, is a secondary consideration, with the immediate focus to be dominated by the quest to arrest their woeful tour form.
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