Backing Bash

Rassie Erasmus needs to show more faith in Peter Grant if the Stormers are to lift themselves from the Super 14 depths.

Tactically, Erasmus felt he got it right at Loftus Versfeld last Saturday. Willem de Waal was selected to place the Bulls under pressure, and for 50 minutes, you couldn’t fault the flyhalf for sticking to the game plan. As play opened up in the second half, Grant was introduced allowing the Stormers to be more expansive. It was a simple formula, but it was far too extreme to be effective.

Grant is renowned for his running game and has been one of the standouts for the Stormers in 2009. His direct approach has troubled defences and he’s created opportunities for the men out wide. He didn’t deserve to be dropped for the Bulls clash and he certainly didn’t deserve to be replaced by De Waal.

At Loftus, De Waal overdid the kicking tactic. There were times when he bested Bulls halfbacks Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn, but there were times when he kicked away well earned possession and failed to explore the attacking options out wide. When he did run it, he crabbed across field making it all too easy for the Bulls defence to smother the movement. De Waal is a good Currie Cup flyhalf, but he doesn’t have the attacking nous to be a success in the Super 14.

For all Grant’s attacking and defending virtues, he’s been perennially maligned for his kicking shortcomings. However, Grant’s done a fair job in 2009, and in a team that should consistently include Percy Montgomery and Conrad Jantjes, the Stormers should want for nothing in the kicking department.

Montgomery’s lethal left foot was prominent at Loftus, and perhaps the Stormers should have used this as a weapon against the Bulls from the flyhalf channel. Rather start Grant at 10 and allow Montgomery to drop in at first-receiver when required than limit Grant’s involvement to just 30 minutes. Of course, it is the Stormers’ inability to strike a balance that has cost them all season.

The forwards fired in Pretoria, the Stormers scrum and lineout edging their Bulls counterparts. The loose trio also looked better when Schalk Burger entered the fray. Even though the South African Samson has been off the pace since shedding his trademark mop, he’s still as vital to the Stormers as Richie McCaw is to the Crusaders. All in all, the Stormers will feel confident that they have the raw materials to lay a decent platform.

The Stormers stood up to a much fancied Blues pack, and only some unforgivable finishing prevented the Stormers from winning that game. The same was true of the Reds fixture where their bumbling blew a four-try bonus, and should the Stormers eventually click and steadily climb the Super 14 ladder only to fall agonisingly short of the play-offs, they will lament these missed opportunities.

For now, the Cape franchise needs to invest all their energy into beating the Lions. Winning is a must, and the bonus point will be a secondary concern considering they can’t afford to head Down Under on the back of three straight defeats. But if they really back themselves as Erasmus suggests, they should believe a four-try bonus is not so inconceivable against a limp unit like the Lions.

Loffie Eloff may opt to play Earl Rose at fullback and Andre Pretorius at flyhalf while No 9 Jano Vermaak is just as capable with boot. If Jantjes is fit, he should be incorporated in a back three that includes Montgomery. Forget your Fijians and your stars of tomorrow, Montgomery and Jantjes have all the skills and the international experience. They are the most well-balanced back three candidates in the Stormers squad, and if they are fit, they should always be starting, even if it means one player will feature out of position.

Their presence will alleviate the pressure on Grant, who should also hand the goal-kicking responsibilities to the squad’s best in Montgomery. You have the expert in your squad, a player who’s goaled vital penalties to win World Cups and Tri-Nations trophies. And yet you leave this player on the bench. It makes no sense.

Erasmus has made a lot of changes since moving to the Cape, some for the better and some that are yet to make sense. Duane Vermeulen has proved a great signing, adding some grunt to the collisions and offering a quality option at the lineout. The forwards aren’t up to the desired mark just yet, but progress has been made from the dark days of 2006 and 2007 when the tights were dubbed ‘The Light-Five’.

Erasmus’s backline selection is up for discussion. There will be games where you choose horses for courses, but since a flyhalf is often at the heart of your team’s mantra, you’re unlikely to bench him. Grant is fighting for a place in that squad to face the British & Irish Lions, and being dropped for the biggest Super 14 derby of the year also doesn’t send a positive message to national selectors.

If the Stormers defy the odds to make the semi-finals and possibly play the Bulls at Loftus, would Erasmus bench Grant again? Would he include De Waal, who offers little on attack and more concerns on defence, in the starting lineup, even though he has Montgomery and Jantjes in tow?

No he wouldn’t, because if the Stormers perform this minor miracle, their flyhalf will be at the forefront of their relative success. Erasmus attempted to overcompensate at Loftus last week and it cost him. The Stormers’ future in this competition hinges on his picking a balanced back division, one that’s capable of the conservative but still retains the penchant for the adventurous.

By Jon Cardinelli