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Rugby | Vodacom Super Rugby

DHL Stormers Technical Team © Gallo Images

Too early for tired old Stormers debate



They’ve scored two tries in three Vodacom Super Rugby games. The first try came in the 160th minute of the season, and was scored off a scrum. The other was an intercept. Reason to reignite that tired old debate about the DHL Stormers’ game plan and whether they are attacking enough? It would appear so on the face of it, but in truth it is way too early.

The debate about whether the Stormers are embracing their culture, which means deifying the concept of “expansive rugby”, feels like it has been around forever. But it intensified at the turn of the last decade, when the Stormers came the closest they ever came to winning Super Rugby - they even topped the overall log in 2012 - but were pilloried by the local media and their fans for not scoring enough tries and being too defence orientated.

The perception was created then that winning wasn’t enough for the Stormers, that rule No 1 for the modern Newlands fan was that it had to be done in style.

Nothing wrong with that, except that the forced intervention and change in the Stormers DNA gave rise to growing pains that were even less palatable than the grinding wins that were evidenced in 2012. The upshot was that by 2014 the Stormers hit a mini-crisis.

It was then that the Western Province president at the time, Thelo Wakefield, sent an SOS to Gert Smal. The former Springbok and Ireland assistant took over the role of director of rugby, essentially meaning a demotion for Coetzee, and it was under Smal’s direction that the Stormers began to be more successful embracing the old WP culture of running rugby - though perhaps the better descriptor is ball in hand rugby.

SO CLOSE YET SO FAR

The Stormers have never gone as close to Super Rugby success since the switch as they did when the D word dominated, but Newlands is a happier place when tries are being scored and when the wings are being brought into the game.

The disquiet that the Stormers have scored just two tries in three games needs to be seen in that context. But some perspective should also be brought by the stats that really some up their season so far - at the start they had one loss in one game, and a negative points differential of 37. Now, after three games, that one loss has been exceeded by wins.

That says everything about the Stormers at the moment. They are a team that had their confidence completely annihilated by the Bulls, and are now rebuilding it. Centre Damian de Allende mentioned this week that the players are still thinking about what happened at Loftus, still smarting over it, and everything since then has been just about getting the ship upright again. In fact, Fleck used that very analogy when explaining where the Stormers are, and answering the already growing criticism of his team’s lack of try-scoring prowess so far.

“We got off to a disastrous start against the Bulls and everything we have done since then has just been about trying to rescue the situation, to get some wins. The ship was listing badly, but after a last minute win over the Lions, and after retaining composure against the Sharks and playing a very good tactical game, we are only now starting to hit an even keel again,” said Fleck.

In reference to the try scoring stats, just in case the new Stormers attack coach Dawie Snyman, who is highly regarded for what he does and is also the attack coach of the national Sevens team, is somehow blaming himself for it, it needs to be pointed out that the Stormers couldn’t win a lineout in the first half of the Loftus game. An attacking game is never going to come together if there is no launch-pad.

And for the first half of the following game against the Lions, the visitors to Newlands were on point tactically. There weren’t many opportunities for the Stormers to attack in the first 50 minutes. Admittedly their skills levels were horrible when they did get ball in the second half, and you could argue they made hard work of the task of overhauling the Lions given how they dominated after halftime.

IN THEIR FAVOUR

Fleck himself also acknowledges that the Stormers should probably have scored two or three tries later in the game against the Sharks in Durban to slant the scoreline more dramatically in his team’s favour. But the Stormers were on the money with their tactics at King’s Park. They needed to beat up the Sharks physically and turn their defence with kicks, and that is what they did.

You do also need to give credit to the Sharks. They defended well in that game and while they were out-muscled on the day, and out-thought too, they retained their passion for resistance against their coastal rivals right to the end.

What was all important, says both Fleck and De Allende, is that the scoreline was in their favour at the final whistle. That point of equilibrium has now been reached, with an away win on South African soil possibly being a quite significant hurdle to cross, and now, says both Fleck and De Allende, the Stormers may be able to lose some of that edginess inspired post-Loftus and be more prepared to try things.

“Since the Bulls it’s been all about picking up the pieces and starting again. We had to get it tactically right against the Lions and Sharks, that was our focus,” says Fleck.

“We really didn’t care about how we won, we just had to win. The players were struggling with confidence. But now we are starting to gel again, there is a bit of a vibe within the group, and the banter is back. I like to think our natural game will start coming through now.”

Fleck reminded the media that it wasn’t just some players who were making their Super Rugby debut at Loftus, but also most of his management team.

“When you take a knock like that it takes time to recover, and we mustn’t forget we had new coaches involved in that game. From Dobbo (John Dobson), to Dawie (Snyman) and Norman (Laker, defence coach), we had guys experiencing Super Rugby for the first time. So it has required a bit of time to rebuild their confidence too. Fortunately we have been working well together, and we are steadying that ship.”

Only a steady ship can power along to it’s full potential, so the angst Stormers fans might be feeling about the ugly route their team has taken until now might be a tad premature.



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