Closer to rock bottom

Jean de Villiers’s injury should see the Stormers plummet from poor to pathetic in a matter of weeks.

As the season progresses the Stormers continue to flounder. They’ve lost four matches in succession with the last defeat in Wellington the worst by far. It’s the worst result considering their much-vaunted defence conceded four tries, and it’s the worst possible result to lose your best player and skipper.

De Villiers has been at the heart of the Stormers’ incredible defensive effort for the last two seasons, and on attack he’s proved a handful. This latter point was perfectly illustrated in the loss to the Brumbies where he ghosted past the Brumbies’ defenders to score an incredible try. It was also a perfect example of how the Stormers have relied on individual brilliance rather than team synergy to enter the end zone.

De Villiers injured his groin in the fourth minute against the Hurricanes and was replaced by Dylan des Fountain. The reserve centre made an immediate impact, scoring a great solo try. Again it served to confirm one thing – the Stormers aren’t lacking for quality individuals. The problem is that more often than not it takes a team effort to break down defences – just watch the Bulls and Crusaders – and in this respect, the Stormers have failed miserably in 2009.

The Stormers will miss De Villiers from a captaincy perspective, and they’ll miss him from a defensive view point. The current stats don’t suggest they’ll miss him on attack, but the alternatives at 12 don’t inspire confidence. Des Fountain and Bobo were both picked as outside centres, and Peter Grant, who played 12 in Christchurch, is better suited to flyhalf. And yet one of these players will start at 12 in Dunedin and, depending on the extent of De Villiers’s injury, the remainder of the tournament.

It seems cynical to assume De Villiers’s replacement won’t fill the void, but forced injury changes have disrupted the Stormers all season. They won two from five before they were hit by injuries to Nick Koster, Andries Bekker, Deon Fourie and Tonderai Chavhanga. They were terrible thereafter in both Christchurch and Sydney and, after losing Francois Louw before the game against the Brumbies, even worse in Canberra.

The Highlanders will face a Stormers side that excludes De Villiers and lock Adriaan Fondse this Friday. The hosts will feel confident that while the Stormers have been bad, the latest injury blows will make a win even harder to come by. At lock, Bekker could step in for Fondse, but as shown in their performance at the weekend, the Stormers lineout wasn’t an issue. The Hurricanes couldn’t find their jumpers with a heat-seeker,but their dominance in other facets translated to dominance on the scoreboard.

The Stormers’ worst ever finish in Super Rugby is 11th (2006). They finished fifth in 2008 and targeted a top-four place in 2009, but presently they’ll do well to finish in the top eight and avoid the wooden spoon. That’s no dramatic statement made to prompt a reaction, it’s a fact.

Rassie Erasmus, the man without any answers, is hoping for a turnaround and is confident the side will click in the near future. But when your side is struggling and then falling foul to injury, you can’t feel confident in this manner. Jean de Villiers is crocked, and his absence will necessitate a rethinking of team dynamics and approach. Whatever goal or continuity the Stormers were striving for (whilst taking numerous beatings on the chin), a rethink is now required. Effectively, the Stormers will have to start from scratch.

The Stormers haven’t hit rock bottom. Rock bottom means the only possible is movement is up, and unfortunately for Cape fans, this side could plummet further yet. They’ve underperformed to the point where they have one of the worst attacking records in the Super 14, and they bowed out of the play-off race (definitively) as early as round nine. But it can get worse if they continue to lose.

They have plenty to play for on Friday as they strive to avoid the embarrassment of a winless tour. They have plenty to play for when they return to Cape Town as they strive to help the Bulls and Sharks qualify for the play-offs by beating a few other contenders. But like the Cheetahs and Lions, they will also be fighting to avoid the embarrassment of the wooden spoon.

You wouldn’t have picked it at the beginning of the season, but it’s now a very realistic possibility.

By Jon Cardinelli