Blue Saturday to cost Stormers?

The Stormers missed a golden opportunity in Auckland that could have cost them semi-final qualification.

The Blues were certainly there for the taking last Saturday and the Stormers will regret not punishing a sub-standard effort. David Nucifora’s men lacked confidence which was reflected in their handling and inability to stamp any authority on the game. This was always going to be hard without their attacking kingpin, Nick Evans.

And yet, the Blues managed a 17-14 victory. Makeshift goal-kicker Ben Atiga missed three kicks at goal but still got the Blues home on the hooter. The Stormers will lament the yellow card that cost them so much momentum towards the end of the first half. They had looked far more threatening on attack and should really have scored more than one try at Eden Park.

The optimists will say the Stormers are doing well despite a defeat to one of the tournament favourites. They did improve on their most recent performances in Brisbane and Hamilton and they have picked up 11 points from three tour games. The Blues are, of course, traditionally very difficult to beat in Auckland.

But looking at last Saturday’s game and what a win could have meant for the Stormers’ campaign, one would have to say the Cape franchise blew an incredible opportunity.

The Stormers were always going into the Australasian leg of the competition with their backs to the wall. After losing their first three matches, they rediscovered the ability to win against the Reds and Chiefs, picking up bonus points for four tries in both games. They were ready to push the Blues, especially since the Auckland side were struggling for form after two losses and the injury to Evans.

Victory in Auckland would have lifted the Stormers to sixth position on the Super 14 log. Despite the Blues’ weakened state, it would have signalled a resurgence of some substance. No South African team has ever won three consecutive Super Rugby tour games, and who knows, achieving that, beating the Western Force in Perth this weekend wouldn’t seem so difficult.

That is to say, the Stormers will now feel even more pressure than before. They desperately need to win in Perth in order to stay in contention. They do have an easier run-in to the playoffs but failing to beat the Force places them in a position where they have to win all their remaining home matches at the very least.

Rassie Erasmus will have set goals at the beginning of the season. The Stormers have provided supporters with a taste of what they’ve capable of, but at this stage they’re likely to finish mid-table. Serious title contenders will punish any team that has an off day like the Blues did last Saturday.

Erasmus spoke to this website after this game and talked about progress. He’s correct in saying the team have improved, but the improvement may be too gradual to expect results in the form of play-off spots this season. After the turbulent times under Kobus van der Merwe, a mid-table finish could provide the base for a serious title assault in 2009.

Looking ahead to the Force game, Erasmus will feel confident his loose trio will gain the ascendancy in Perth. The line-out is another area where Adriaan Fondse and Andries Bekker have been impressive. The scrum, however, is still an area of concern.

Peter Grant and Ricky Januarie are improving steadily but continue to mix the sublime with the ordinary. Perhaps the calming influence of a seasoned veteran like Tony Brown is exactly what they need to gain some control over their abilities. Brown won’t blunt their impact but having him at 10 should provide these rough diamonds with some much needed polishing.

Erasmus has kept mum about the use of Brown in his starting side, but it must be a strong temptation. Brown gave the Stormers more direction and linked well with the outside backs. He did make a few errors last week, but his tactical prowess with the boot is a strength the Stormers are lacking.

His inclusion and shifting of Grant to centre could force another positional switch at 13. Jean de Villiers has been solid on defence but Gcobani Bobo has often been outgunned in this channel due to a lack of pace. De Villiers is playing 13 on attack already, so his official switch should only see his duties changing on defence.

By Jon Cardinelli