Stormers’ progression under the spotlight

JON CARDINELLI writes that this Saturday’s showdown at Loftus will reveal whether the Stormers have developed their kicking game to the point where it can trouble the Bulls.

It was the day after the 2010 Super 14 final, and I was checking in at the O.R Tambo Airport. Allister Coetzee struck a forlorn figure, and the constant approach of sympathetic Stormers fans did little to lighten his mood.

I approached him myself and we chatted briefly about the Soweto decider, a match that was won comfortably by the Bulls. Coetzee admitted that certain aspects of the Stormers’ game required development. He intimated that until the Stormers progressed in the kicking department, they would continue to struggle against the Bulls.

Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn were in masterful form on that occasion. The Bulls had 52% of possession, but it was their option-taking and accuracy that set them apart. Whether it was the kick-and-chase tactic that proved so effective in the 2009 season, or a raking drive for territory, they completely outplayed their halfback counterparts.

The territorial battle proved decisive in the 2010 final, and it should prove decisive in this Saturday’s encounter. We know what to expect from Du Preez, Steyn and Zane Kirchner at fullback, but the big question is how much have the Stormers added to their kicking game in the space of 10 months.

Dewaldt Duvenage and Peter Grant are likely to start, and it’s a smart selection if you consider the alternatives. Ricky Januarie’s lack of speed to the rucks and high-error rate make him a liability at the best of times, and his inaccuracies with the boot preclude him as an option when the Stormers face a tactical team like the Bulls.

Much will depend on the platform provided by the respective foward packs, and while the Stormers have battled with their ball retention, the Bulls have failed to replicate the physical game that made them such a force in 2010. But do Duvenage and Grant have what it takes to outplay Du Preez and Steyn?

Duvenage looked rusty in his first start for the Stormers last week, but remains a key man for the Cape side. It’s his kicks from the base that have the potential to disrupt the Bulls defence, providing those kicks are well chased by Bryan Habana and Danie Poolman.

Grant has been in great goal-kicking form, and has got through a tremendous amount of work on defence. His decision making, however, has been disappointing, and his line-kicking is still a problem. He also seems to lack the confidence, or even the vision, to kick for space, and missed a number of opportunities in this regard when the Stormers’ hosted the Highlanders.

The Stormers need to play a smarter territorial game than they have in recent weeks. They placed themselves under pressure against the Highlanders because they turned over the ball in their own half, and were forced to spend long periods defending a Highlanders assault. If they find themselves in this situation at altitude, their defence will tire and eventually relent.

The media and the public want more tries, and justifiably so as a one from three return is not good enough by any standard. But the Stormers need to ensure they play the game in the right areas of the field, and build the pressure from there. If they attempt to build an attack from deep in their own half, they will only succeed in playing into the Bulls’ hands.

The pressure’s on Duvenage and Grant to deliver. Gio Aplon also has a role to play at fullback, and while he remains a counter-attacking specialist, he needs to be on the look out for tactical kicking opportunities that will result in a net territorial gain.

The Stormers need to anticipate the Bulls’ aerial assault, and then reply in kind. If they repeat the mistakes of 2010 and fail to show an improvement in their kicking game, they will continue to struggle against their arch-rivals.

Follow JC on Twitter

Follow SA Rugby on Twitter