Stormers still treading water

The Stormers need to pull themselves out of their pre-season funk before they suffer a campaign-threatening setback, writes JON CARDINELLI.

After 84 minutes of high drama, the Newlands faithful rejoiced at the final whistle. The scoreboard reflected a 19-16 victory, and the Stormers’ log tally totalled eight points after just one round.

As far as these particular stats are concerned, the Stormers will be smiling. They may argue that these are the only figures that matter.

There are less flattering stats, however, that suggest the Stormers’ performance was as disjointed as their pre-season showings. Three points separated the Lions and the Stormers, and had the Cape team lost, there would have been unequivocal talk of disaster and portending capitulation.

The Lions are yet to produce the results to substantiate their self-imposed tag of Super Rugby contenders, and until they do, they will remain a side that play-off aspirants should expect to beat. Play-off contenders can’t drop home games, and they certainly can’t drop home games against the traditionally weaker Super Rugby sides.

The Stormers avoided disaster last Saturday when Andries Bekker forced a turnover which Conrad Jantjes eventually fly-hacked to touch. It ensured a winning start to the tournament, but their performance only underlined some pre-season concerns.

Gary van Aswegen should never have started the first game at flyhalf, but then it wasn’t as if the selectors had much of a choice. The Cape team released Peter Grant to play in Japan last year, believing he would rejoin the Stormers in January for their Super Rugby preparations. They didn’t back younger flyhalves like Lionel Cronje and Van Aswegen in the Currie Cup, preferring to push for a tournament win through Willem de Waal, a older, limited player that was due to leave South Africa at the end of the 2010 season.

January came and went, and Grant didn’t return to Cape Town. Moves were made to fast-track Van Aswegen at No 10 despite his lack of Currie Cup experience, let alone his unfamiliarity with Super Rugby. Already the Stormers were on the back foot, trying to hand the 21-year-old the exposure he should have enjoyed in the 2010 Currie Cup. Where was the planning and foresight? And how do the powers that be at the Stormers get away with letting their only established flyhalf waste away in Japan?

Flyhalf was the biggest concern until Tiaan Liebenberg injured medial ligaments in the game against Boland, an injury that ruled him out for the entire competition. The management were vocal in support for Liebenberg’s understudy, Deon Fourie, but it was another difficult situation. Fourie didn’t play in the pre-season games due to injury and the other hooker in the squad, Siyabonga Ntubeni, had no Currie Cup and Super Rugby experience.

Fourie’s rustiness was evident in last Saturday’s match against the Lions. He wasn’t in sync with his jumpers at lineout time, and also copped a yellow card for a breakdown infringement after referee Stuart Dickinson had placed the Stormers on a team warning. Assuming Fourie improves in the next few weeks (as he improved to throw the lineout ball that set up Pieter Louw’s game-winning try), the Stormers can expect to improve on their lineout, their primary attacking platform.

But if Fourie goes down with a serious injury during the season, the Stormers don’t have experience in reserve. The absence of a Super Rugby quality hooker could influence the potency of a lineout that dominated all opponents in 2010, and in turn, the Stormers’ attacking momentum. We’ve already seen how the absence of an experienced, Super Rugby flyhalf has limited the Stormers backline.

The Stormers blew an opportunity to make a statement against the Lions, as well as the chance to show that they’d worked out the pre-season problems. The disciplinary afflictions, suspect option-taking and awful execution that stifled their progress in the warm-ups are still painfully apparent.

The defence by any standards has also been a disappointment. The manner in which they conceded linebreaks, as well as the two tries, in their first official game was an indictment on where they presently stand. They were the best defensive side in the competition last year, not to mention the team with the best disciplinary record. Those standards have not been maintained thus far.

They should beat the Cheetahs and Highlanders in the next two weeks, but they need to deliver more controlled and disciplined performances. Stuttering wins over mediocre teams do not inspire confidence, and there’s little doubt that if they serve up the same rubbish against the Bulls on 19 March, they will be unceremoniously and ruthlessly punished.

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