JON CARDINELLI says that by adopting an overly defensive mindset the Stormers run the risk of becoming predictable and thus increasingly beatable in Saturday’s semi-final at Newlands.
On Wednesday, Allister Coetzee tried to justify Conrad Jantjes’s selection at fullback. The Stormers’ coach stated that Jantjes was a good defender and a sound tactical kicker. He said that in a territorial battle at a rain-ravaged Newlands, Jantjes could have an important role to play.
On the basis of Jantjes’s form, I’d argue that Coetzee’s faith in the player as a fine positional fullback and great line-kicker is misplaced. I’d also argue that the alternative, Gio Aplon, is just as capable of playing a tactical kicking game, and that starting Aplon at fullback will give the Stormers more attacking, counter-attacking and kicking options.
But the Stormers seem determined to stick to an overly defensive approach. They seem determined to limit their options and favour reactionary tactics. Some will call it conservative, safe and necessary given the expected conditions and pressure of a semi-final. I call it putting all your eggs into one basket.
While the Stormers will need to be sharp on defence, they will also need to take whatever scoring opportunities come their way. Defence will be important, but they can’t stonewall the Crusaders for 80 minutes. There needs to be some variation, or at least the prospect of an attack.
Jantjes has struggled to impose himself on attack since returning from a serious leg injury last year. The opposition don’t recognise him as a threat, and are content to kick on him and wait for the error or the predictable kick return.
It’s a tactic that worked for the Bulls in their victory at Newlands three weeks ago. They kicked relentlessly on Jantjes and Bryan Habana, and when the Stormers’ pair didn’t lose the ball, they inevitably turned it over when they attempted to counter-attack.
Most teams will be wary about kicking on Aplon. While he has done well on the wing for both the Stormers and South Africa, he is better utilised at fullback. On attack, he can come into the backline on both sides of the field. On the counter-attack, he can turn a poor kick into a try at the other end. And in a territorial exchange, Aplon’s underrated left boot can earn the Stormers valuable metres.
There’s nothing special about Janjtes on attack and nothing imposing about his kicking game either. The Stormers’ decision to play him at 15 will be cheered by the Crusaders, as this will allow the visitors to employ their own pressure tactics.
The Crusaders will attempt to pressure the Stormers’ back three with a good kick chase or alternatively wait for Jantjes to kick the ball back. Since the Cantabrians have an imposing defensive system of their own and a superior halfback combination that boast all the necessary attacking skills as well match-winning tactical-kicking accuracy, they have every right to expect that this approach will yield the desired results.
Coetzee argues that if the Stormers’ overly defensive approach doesn’t work, there is still the fall-back option of switching to all-out attack in the second half. In that event, Deon Fourie and Schalk Brits will come off the bench, and Aplon will move to fullback.
But what Coetzee fails to remember is that the Crusaders are particularly good at punishing desperate teams. They crept ahead of the Sharks through the goal-kicking of Dan Carter, and once they had established an eight-point lead, the Sharks were forced to take chances. Kieran Read intercepted a wild pass from Pat Lambie, and from there the Crusaders continued to feed off mistakes caused by the visitors’ increasing desperation.
The Stormers would have been better served to start Aplon at fullback against the Crusaders. They will still be favourites, but starting Jantjes at fullback means the pack and the halfbacks will have to work doubly hard to ensure his deficiencies are not exposed to a game-costing degree.