Coach Kobus van der Merwe has been caned for the performance of the Stormers in the Vodacom Super 14, but his brave team selections for the crucial Cheetahs clash deserve nothing but praise.
In partnering Jean de Villiers with Marius Joubert in the most attacking midfield combination possible, and selecting both Tonderai Chavhanga and Joe Pietersen, Van der Merwe has confounded those who seek to tag him as an ultra-conservative.
De Wet Barry played 872 out of a possible 880 minutes of the Stormers’ Vodacom Super 12 campaign last year. Despite disappointing results compounding week on week, Gert Smal became more entrenched that Barry was essential in jersey 12.
The worse it got, the quicker Barry was picked.
Van der Merwe’s results may be similar to last season, but it his reaction to these results that deserve applause.
Naming Schalk Burger at No 8, opting for the untried Jean de Villiers as captain and handing Justin Melck a start above the likes of Gerrie Britz and Hendrik Gerber are not the actions of a man clinging to his job.
Van der Merwe’s baptism of fire in the Vodacom Super 14 has taught him that you never arrive in first-class rugby, you only leave. He and technical director Gary Gold have been in the job at Newlands for less than a year, and already there are calls for their dismissals. There is no denying that the Cape side’s underperforming, but lumping the blame on the collective doorstep of Van der Merwe and Gold is foolhardy.
Both are coaches with track records that underline their tactical ability. Whether either were prepared for the complex politics of Cape rugby is another question, and the occasional ‘deer in the headlights’ effect can be attributed to a lack of streetsmarts rather than a lack of smarts.
In the face of hostility, the honesty with which Van der Merwe deals with the media has led to accusations of naivety, but where he has been criticised he should be commended. Despite the avalanche of criticism the only mind games Van der Merwe has played concerned the fitness of De Villiers, when he delayed the announcement of his exclusion due to injury for two days before the Brumbies bash.
After only one victory from five matches, four of which have been at home, other coaches in Van der Merwe’s position would (and have) release dummy team-sheets, stick with combinations obviously not working, make statements that the team is one victory away from turning it around, and generally just hit and hope.
Van der Merwe’s stint as Stormers coach has not yielded acceptable results thus far, but his attempts to redress deep and underlying problems in a side he inherited have been proactive and not reactive.
Allied with Gold, one of the finest tactical thinkers on the game our country possesses, Van der Merwe’s honesty and adventurous mindset could yet rescue the Stormers from the spiral they seem scarily close of slipping into.