Tactics causing Stormers to slip

Poor ball retention was secondary to diabolical decision making and wayward tactical kicking in the Stormers’ disappointing defeat to the Sharks.

Six points separated the teams at full-time, and if basic maths were the measure of a contest, you’d have to say the try the Stormers conceded at the end of the first half cost them the win.

In his fielding of an overcooked, rolling kick, Sireli Naqelevuki cut the figure of an old man afflicted with a chronic back problem rather than a lithe athlete in the prime of his life. His casual approach to the in-goal area and amateurish bobble allowed Ruan Pienaar ample time to complete the unlikeliest of tries. Seven points were scored, and the Stormers ended up losing by six.

To label this incident as game-deciding, however, would be wrong. While the Sharks may have scored more than two tries had their own handling been up to scratch, the Stormers made a series of unforced errors. Coach Allister Coetzee spoke about the poor ball retention as the root cause for failure, but too many of those mistakes were made on the Stormers’ side of halfway. It begs the question: why are the Stormers backing themselves to run in tries from their own half?

It’s a touchy topic in the Cape, and in the greater South African community. The new law interpretations were brought in because the powers that be wanted an increase in running rugby and a decrease in senseless kicking. The Cape community want their team to play an attractive brand; their collective groan reverberating throughout Newlands whenever their heroes put boot to ball. Any talk or reference to a strategy that depends on good kicking has suddenly become taboo.

The Stormers played some fantastic rugby against the Blues and Chiefs, but they were up against teams that consider defence an afterthought rather than the cornerstone of a successful campaign. Unsurprisingly, they fell to the Reds when they favoured a running approach over a territory-based game plan. They played smarter against the Crusaders and prospered to the tune of 42-14, but then tried to run the Sharks off their feet.

It may be unpopular to say so, but the Stormers need to revisit a formula that produced results in the earlier stages of the competition. Keeping possession and trying to deplete defences while still in your own territory is too risky. It places increased pressure on the forwards to not only secure the ball, but to ensure they don’t concede a penalty within goal-kicking range. Although the new interpretations favour attacking teams, defensive penalties aren’t out of the question.

The Bulls travel to Newlands this weekend and will be hoping the Stormers persist with the same game plan. You aren’t going to beat the Bulls by keeping the ball and bashing it up the middle. They have the heavies to counter the Stormers’ impressive ball carriers, and a fetcher capable of pushing the boundaries at ruck time. They’re also deceptively good on the counter-attack, and if the Stormers succumb to the pressure at the collisions and make mistakes like they did in Durban, the Bulls will punish them.

The Cape side find themselves in a difficult spot, because their kicking game has lacked accuracy in recent weeks. Peter Grant’s line-kicking is still not up to standard while Dewaldt Duvenage’s box kicks aren’t finding their mark. To alleviate some of the pressure and provide more balance, Joe Pietersen should be reinstated at fullback while Gio Aplon must be pushed to Naqelevuki’s wing. Bryan Habana’s return will also lend the kick-chase some impetus.

You can bet the big bucks that Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn are going to play a smart, territorial game. The Bulls’ attack has improved to the point where they are no longer a one-dimensional outfit, but first and foremost, they know how to grind out the close-fought contests. Their halfback pair makes the right decisions, be it to kick or run from deep, but the overall approach is so cleverly worked that these decisions are often perceived as risk-free.

The same cannot be said of the Stormers’ new intent to run the ball from their own 22. There will be times when the counter-attack is on, but these instances are in the minority when you’re playing the top teams. They knew that when they played the Crusaders and so didn’t attempt to cut the Kiwis from deep. If only they had paid the Sharks the same respect, they wouldn’t be in a situation where they need a win in the final match to book a home semi-final.

The Stormers need to get back to pressuring their opponents and squeezing until the opportunity to strike arrives. Last Saturday, they tried to play all the rugby and their opponents fed off their escalating error count.

They have the personnel to match the Bulls’ physicality and a backline capable of scoring spectacular tries, but they need to fight the forward battles and feed their dangerous backs from the right areas of the field. If they fail to alter their present approach, an impressive season will end in further frustration.

By Jon Cardinelli