On the road to nowhere

The Stormers have failed to build on their 2008 platform with tactical turmoil and the loss of attacking mojo at the heart of their affliction.

Down in Cape Town we have something called ‘the P-word’. It’s no traditional slur or vulgar reference, but is no less abhorred. P is for Potential, a word used by every South African scribe when assessing the Stormers’ prospects in the pre-season. It’s a word that raises expectations, and despite a history of frustrating results, the word is utilised every year without fail.

And why not? A team that boasts more Springboks than any other franchise should be talked up, and should be expected to perform. Just as a starting team boasting 10 Springboks should be slated when they lose their fifth match out of seven and languish at 11th on the log.

There were so many disappointing aspects about the Stormers’ recent loss in Sydney, but the biggest disappointment was captain Jean de Villiers’s post-match comments. De Villiers felt encouraged by the Stormers’ progress despite the defeat. The previous match in Christchurch was a clanger, and the abomination at the SFS was hardly better. How do you take heart from a loss where you failed to score a try, failed to display any synergy and effectively bombed out of the competition at the half-way stage?

The Stormers need to start facing up to some harsh truths and need to start being honest with the public. Sure their defence has been great, but the public aren’t stupid. At the very least the public can read a scoreboard and they can read a Super 14 log. Neither favoured the Stormers last Saturday, and so any talk of progress is a blatant insult to the public’s intelligence.

Sixteen tries in seven matches is an inflated strike rate when you consider eight of the Stormers’ tries came against a diabolical Lions’ defence. Sixteen in seven is not good enough anyway, but eight in six highlights the problem. As a team traditionally celebrated for their attacking inclinations, they’ve underperformed to an unacceptable degree. Rassie Erasmus is a firm believer in stats, and the numbers certainly don’t lie.

Team selection and tactical turmoil have contributed to the Stormers’ impotency on attack. Willem de Waal was effective at flyhalf against the Bulls and Lions, but in subsequent matches when the Stormers needed to play rugby, he failed to exploit the talent out wide.

Erasmus should have maintained faith in Grant after the first three outings, as the Stormers’ premier pivot had been one of the team’s best players. The tactics of booting for territory before chucking it wide weren’t without merit, but why Grant couldn’t be utilised to implement said tactics is unfathomable. De Waal can boot it, but he sure as hell can’t run it.

But not all the blame can be laid at De Waal’s door, or Erasmus’s for that matter. The team has not gelled and the combinations have not fired as they did in 2008. Erasmus himself lamented the ‘lacklustre’ effort in Christchurch, and the display in Sydney was just as lethargic. While injury and selection have disrupted the synergy, the effort on the players’ part has been lacking.

So what’s the bottom line? Well, Rassie doesn’t seem to have any answers for the underachievement of a team that finished fifth in 2008, and against a side laden with world-class players will rely on mathematics to provide the miracle. That is if they manage to win their remaining six fixtures and rediscover their attacking mojo. That would be a miracle in itself, and also fail to hide their piss-poor start to the 2009 competition.

A good finish will also not provide the Stormers with a platform, as several senior players may move on at the end of the season. Percy Montgomery and AJ Venter are likely to hang up their boots while another Bok in Schalk Brits is off to Saracens. Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers could reconsider their options after the British & Irish Lions series while Luke Watson could move east to the new Southern Kings franchise when his contract expires.

The Stormers have plenty to play for from a South African perspective. Individuals will be fighting for places in the Bok squad to face the Lions, and the team needs to beat the Brumbies, Hurricanes and Highlanders in the next three weeks to ensure the Sharks and Bulls secure home semi-finals.

From a Super 14 point of view, don’t expect to hear anybody uttering the P-word in 2010 (the one I’m talking about anyway). The R-word will hold sway as Erasmus and company attempt to rebuild this side into a competitive unit without a number of senior players.

The 2008 season promised so much, but after a shocking start to 2009, the Cape faithful could be waiting another eight years before they see a trophy of significance in the Newlands cabinet.

By Jon Cardinelli