Answers elude hapless Stormers

The Stormers’ poor form bodes badly for their season-defining visit to Loftus Versfeld.

Last Saturday, Rassie Erasmus did what good losing coaches do at post-match press conferences. He admitted the other team were better on the day, highlighted where his own charges went wrong and took personal responsibility for his own tactical failings.

But while he could offer excuses, he couldn’t offer solutions. This weekend’s clash with the Bulls is season-defining, as after the subsequent game against the Lions the Cape franchise depart on a grueling five-match tour Down Under. They’ll need a massive turn around to win at Loftus, but where they’re going to find that spark is anybody’s guess. Worryingly, the use of the word ‘anybody’ couldn’t be more accurate, as even Erasmus is at a loss to provide an answer for his side’s repeated underachieving.

Erasmus explained that after 16 games together (since the beginning of 2008), the Stormers are not far from their desired objective. Erasmus argued that while results didn’t reflect their progress, the 16 scorelines did, as since he’s come to power the Stormers have lost only one game by more than seven points (namely the 22-0 loss to the Crusaders last season). He also aligned the 2008 and 2009 campaigns, stressing the poor start to this year’s competition doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll fail to make the play-offs.

Stormers captain Jean de Villiers was more honest. De Villiers told after the game that bad handling cost the Stormers after they had played themselves into good positions. It was the third week running where the Stormers have failed to put a side away. The fans are sick of it, South Africa’s scribes are right to put the boot in and now it seems the franchise’s best player is sick of it as well. Is a Stormers team packed with Springboks ever going to live up to its potential? It’s a question De Villiers all but asked himself.

There were encouraging aspects in the loss to the Sharks, a team that’s been tipped to win the tournament. But two disappointing performances against two very ordinary outfits should trip the alarm. The Reds are out to entertain, which is unsurprising since they have zero chance of making the play-offs, and the Blues are a hit-and-miss mob devoid of structure. Big wins were there for the taking, but the Stormers dropped the ball.

Erasmus believes they are on the right tactical track, but tactics, however inventive and promising, are useless without the correct execution. On Saturday, the Stormers weren’t accurate enough to obtain full value for their fast-paced approach. After three weeks, you can hardly blame ring-rust or lack of synergy. This team had two pre-season matches, and as a unit they’ve been together for over a year. How many games until they finally perform?

Erasmus has tried to align this season and the last given the Stormers’ poor start. But what he fails to acknowledge is that 2008 saw the Stormers start against three 2007 semi-finalists in the Bulls, Sharks and Crusaders, and they did so as a new team under a new coaching staff. The start to the 2009 tournament should have been a different story, especially when they were set to play the rubble Reds and the struggling Blues inside the first three weeks.

It’ll be interesting to see how they approach the Bulls fixture. Outmuscling the Pretoria pack is not an option (or an optimistic one, to be positive). If the Bulls gain control, they’ll play a slow game that should frustrate the Stormers, and if the Cape franchise can’t play the game at pace it’s hard to see how they’ll breach a well-drilled defence. Their kicking game will also come under scrutiny, a department that’s been below par thus far. The Stormers played a smarter territorial game against the Blues, but failed to make it count on the scoreboard. They’ll need to click at Loftus if they’re to have a sniff at an upset.

They are creating opportunities with their running off the ball, but the harsh reality of sport is that opportunities are meaningless unless they’re exploited. Consider Loffie Eloff and his favourite post-match gripe. The Lions coach regularly laments the opportunities wasted by his charges. Loffie always insists things would have been different had those chances been taken, but the next match is usually the same with the Lions blundering and butchering try-scoring opportunities. The Lions have the ability to astound, but as their recent log-finishes will confirm, they don’t have ability to challenge for the title.

From a South African point of view, one would hope the latest affliction is not the start of a trend. The Stormers have lost two from three and can still turn it around, but their draw will make it that much harder. They’ll beat the Lions in Cape Town, but they’ll struggle up on the highveld. Last year, they tasted success abroad albeit against perennial mid-tablers the Chiefs, Reds and Force. This year’s overseas tour sees them fronting the Crusaders, Waratahs, Brumbies and Hurricanes on four successive weekends. They may be good enough to edge the Highlanders in their fifth tour game, but by then, the result may be inconsequential.

Loftus is a watershed fixture, it’s either the beginning of redemption or the start of a familiar slide towards mediocrity. Come full-time this Saturday, we should know where the Stormers stand.

By Jon Cardinelli