Nothing soft about these Stormers

MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says the Cape franchise has shown why they can win Super Rugby.

This was what the Stormers’ preseason hype was about: a team that could create as well as defend; a team that plays with inspiration, intelligence and integrity.

The opposition was not the best, but the timing of the match — sandwiched between a Stormers visit to Pretoria and Durban — made it a game that had the potential to end in heartbreak for the Cape-based franchise.

I had questioned the Stormers’ mental ability to get up for the Australians after the effort put into the win against the Bulls in Pretoria. If there was a week when a Stormers no- show could be expected (and excused) this was it.

But this is the Stormers, after all, and they are a team known to give you the opposite of what you expect: they not only pitched up, but they played their most complete match of the season in destroying a team who a week earlier had been almost as harsh on the Lions in Johannesburg.

Newlands, as a playing surface, is nice and soft, but clearly it isn’t because the players are soft. The Stormers, for two seasons, have been one of the most physically imposing teams and one of the stingiest defensive units. The criticism has been that the players had lost the art of attack and the obsession not to leak a try came at the expense of scoring any. Until Saturday’s half-century the Stormers had scored just two tries in 320 minutes of Super Rugby. They trebled that against the West Australians.

The most impressive aspect was that they proved to themselves that they could attack and still maintain the resolve to defend. Few teams have the mental capacity to want to tackle when leading by 30 points in Super Rugby, but this Stormers side is of the rare breed that prides itself in defending their goal line, regardless of the score.

This was the performance of a team with the potential to win the tournament. It had everything and naturally it also came with a reminder that for the Stormers to be contenders in two months, they will need luck with injury, particularly for Peter Grant at flyhalf.

Grant’s understudy, Gary van Aswegen, playing for Western Province in the Vodacom Cup, showed tremendous temperament to beat Griquas with the last kick of the match, but he is no Grant at this juncture of his career and the Stormers rely on Grant as much as the Crusaders do on Dan Carter .

Grant was my man of the match and so far he has been the Stormers’ man of the season. He kicked nine from nine, controlled play and used his mind as much as quick hand speed to bamboozle the Force.

Jean de Villiers continues to improve and he again looks like the stallion that left for Munster 18 months ago and not the carthorse that returned. His captaincy has also matured into authority and clarity.

Andries Bekker and Jaque Fourie were two other standouts and Duane Vermeulen, at No 8, would play for any other country if he played overseas. The national selectors have never shown an interest in him and it must confuse the hell out of the Stormers’ opponents.

If life was swell in Cape Town, it was simply sorry at Loftus, where the Bulls stumbled to victory against a Lions team getting progressively worse. I had the Bulls to win by 14 points or more as the value bet of the weekend and at 30-16 with two minutes to play it seemed a good option.

But this was no vintage Bulls performance and there was no brutal backlash; only the confirmation that the Bulls will struggle to make the top-six play-offs this year. They were as poor as they were a week earlier against the Stormers. They have problems and are champions in rapid decline.

The Lions, all huff, puff and passion for the first three weeks of the competition, are now looking like the circus lions of last year. They still play with ignorance and disregard for the merits of game management.

They confuse enterprise with recklessness and until they understand and respect the principle of game management, they won’t be successful.