Can Stormers learn from failure?

The biggest decision Rassie Erasmus will make is whether to persist with Willem de Waal at flyhalf. It’s a decision that could continue to cost the Stormers.

The Stormers’ Super 14 season may have culminated in a 28-22 win over the Cheetahs, but that hardly hides the ultimate failure. The Stormers finished 10th with a record of five wins in 13 matches. Twenty-eight tries scored at a rate of only two per game, and on only one occasion – against the Lions – did they accrue the four-try bonus.

Erasmus has spoken at length about mistakes made and lessons learned. The obvious lesson is you can’t lose three from six home games and expect to compete with the top dogs. You can’t win two from five before you head on a five-match Australasian tour and expect to return to South Africa still in the running. But you don’t need to be a former Springbok or master tactitian to understand these facts, do you?

In Erasmus’s first season in charge, the Stormers finished fifth in the competition. It was a good finish considering what they’d come from – a chaotic 2007 season that saw four wins and an 11th-placed finish. You’d be forgiven for expecting them to build on their relative success in 2008, but that’s hardly been the case as the 2009 log will verify.

Injuries have certainly played their part, but the Stormers were looking shaky before they were hit by a plague that began after the Lions game and only abated after the home clash with the Chiefs. Although the players themselves should take responsibility for their inaccuracies, the team selection also played a part in their earlier failings.

Erasmus felt he’d got it right with the selection of De Waal at pivot and the benching of premier 10 Peter Grant. The thinking behind the move was sound, and you could understand what the Stormers were trying to do. Play the smart territorial game by utilising a strong kicker at 10. Dominate territory and only when you’re in the opponents’ half, only when you have the platform, only then can you embrace the running game.

The problem is De Waal tended to blow hot and cold. The most recent game in Bloemfontein was an example of what he can do, and that Bulls fixture in round four also seemingly vindicated Erasmus’s faith in the former Cheetahs Currie Cup hero. But he couldn’t play like this every week, and more importantly, could never adapt when the situation demanded it.

Grant started the season as one of the Stormers’ stand-out players, but that brilliance was limited to his distribution and running game. The Stormers still needed a strong kicker at 10 and this is why De Waal was promoted.

This is the crux of the matter. The Stormers have no one else to pick. De Waal is the only kicking option, but if you pick him you limit yourself on attack, and if he blows cold rather than hot, then you are in trouble. This was seen on tour where he battled to make an impact with that hyped left boot.

Erasmus seems to think Grant has a future at 12, and with Jean de Villiers likely to join Irish giants Munster, it may not be a bad option. Think about Berrick Barnes for Australia and the kicking and running benefits the Wallabies have on attack. Grant could excel in this role, but the problem is he doesn’t have Giteau on his inside. He has De Waal.

The long process of identifying and contracting new players begins today, and at the top of the Stormers’ shopping list must be at least one flyhalf. Joe Pietersen’s recent success has confirmed what so many believed – he is a back-three option, not a flyhalf. Outside of De Waal, the Stormers don’t really have any options with Grant set to settle at 12.

AJ Venter (retired), Brian Mujati and Schalk Brits (who have been contracted by English clubs) will need to be replaced. Brits’s dynamism in the loose will be missed, but Tiaan Liebenberg is more the complete package and in hooker Deon Fourie the Stormers have a burgeoning talent.

Andries Bekker and Adriaan Fondse will return in time, and should Hilton Lobberts continue to progress, second-row depth shouldn’t be a problem. Mujati hardly made a big impact in his two-year stay with the Stormers, and while the Stormers have a promising loosehead in Wicus Blaauw, the are still short on front row experience. On that shopping list under the word ‘flyhalf’ should be the word ‘tighthead’. Under that word should be the word ‘tighthead’. Erasmus needs quality and experience and although JC Kritzinger and Brok Harris are expected to be valuable assets in years to come, the Stormers need a No 3 who can dominate next year.

The Absa Currie Cup will be viewed as an opportunity to rebuild. On the basis of the Super 14, you couldn’t say Western Province are title contenders. However, if the Stormers are going to be better in the 2009, they need their domestic alter egos to at least qualify for the Currie Cup semi-finals.

By Jon Cardinelli