Stormers’ defensive weakness exposed

JON CARDINELLI writes that the smartest teams have kicked over the Stormers’ defensive line rather than expose themselves to a prolonged confrontation at the coalface.

The Stormers have won eight matches this season, and aggressive defence has been central to that success. They’ve conceded five tries over the course of those eight matches, and as much as they’ve got it right in those games, opposition teams have got it tactically wrong.

The Stormers’ three defeats reveal as much. There is one chink in their defensive armour, and while it was exposed on the odd occasion in 2010, it’s been regularly exposed in 2011.

When they provide the physical intensity up front, they’re tough to match, but draw them into a tactical kicking battle and watch them struggle. Put a grubber or chip in behind their defensive line, and watch a well-organised defensive unit go to pieces.

The most recent defeat is a case in point. Poor tactical kicking ranks high on the list of reasons for defeat in Hamilton. The Stormers battled to play the game outside of their own half, and although they finished the match only seven points behind, they never threatened to close that gap.

The Chiefs did well to keep the Stormers pinned in their own territory, and it was through attacking kicks that they scored their first two tries. Richard Kahui kicked through the Stormers, and while the decision to award a penalty try was questionable, it can’t be denied that the kick opened up the visitors’ defence.

Shortly after, Stephen Donald spotted some space behind the Stormers’ defensive line and produced a deft chip that was regathered by Sitiveni Sivivatu. The Stormers may have cursed a dodgy call for the penalty try and then the bounce of the ball for Sivivatu’s, but they must realise the attacking kick it’s a tactic that’s worked against them before.

Against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, Bryan Habana failed to gather a Bjorn Basson chip and was duly punished. It was a key moment in the match and Basson’s try gave the Bulls an important score right before half-time. The Stormers went on to win, but it was an incident that highlighted a weakness.

The Stormers’ coaches have dismissed the call for a contingency with the explanation that you can’t plan for every eventuality. They say that if the grubber or chip is put into space, you have to back your scramble defence to get back and recover.

The Stormers are good scrambling defenders, but the kick into space is a tactic that’s always going to place them under pressure. They could use the scrumhalf to sweep behind the defensive line and thus fill that open space, but the coaches argue that they don’t want to forgo that extra defender at the ruck base.

It will be interesting to see how the Blues approach the situation this Friday. They’ve already scored some fantastic tries through well-weighted grubbers and chips (who could forget Luke McAlister’s gentle dab for prop John Afoa to chase and score in the game against the Waratahs). Stephen Brett and McAlister both have the potential to create in this manner, and will be the danger men if they are selected this week.

The Blues are a fearsome side when they keep ball in hand, but they will know that the Stormers’ defence is not easily breached. The Cape side is susceptible when you pin them in their own half and force them to defend for extended periods, and they are vulnerable to that little kick into space.

What will also help the decision to kick is that the Stormers are not known for their counter-attack. Bryan Habana is a knife that needs sharpening while Conrad Jantjes has been more solid that spectacular since returning from a serious leg injury in 2010. He lacks pace and attacking penetration.

If the Stormers want to give themselves more attacking options, Gio Aplon must play fullback. This will give them counter-attacking options should the opposition kick on their back three, and will also prevent the opposition from chipping and grubbering behind the defensive line.

With Aplon capable of punishing poor kicks, it would be a risky tactic. He needs to be shifted from wing to fullback if the Stormers want to extract full value from the individual and plug the hole in their defensive game.

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