Test of depth vital to Stormers’ growth

JON CARDINELLI says that while the Stormers managed a scrappy win against the Hurricanes they will need a far more consistent effort from their inexperienced charges in the next few weeks.

Captain Schalk Burger sustained a knee injury in the clash with the Hurricanes and will be sidelined for as many as six rounds. While the Stormers will argue that they have a suitable replacement leader in Jean de Villiers, the loss of Burger will compromise the balance and experience of their back row.

Siya Kolisi made a massive impact when replacing Burger in Saturday’s contest, scoring a try but making far more telling contributions through his work around the park. The Stormers pack as a collective dominated the Hurricanes at the collisions and breakdowns, but then they were always expected to.

The Hurricanes had come into this match with an untested and inexperienced Super Rugby combination and so predictably lacked the synergy and accuracy to be a consistent threat. It shouldn’t surprise that they struggled under duress, or that they resorted to illegal tactics in an attempt to halt the Stormers’ momentum.

What should surprise is that the Stormers weren’t able to make more of their own opportunities. They fielded some fresh faces in Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Steven Kitshoff, but there was enough experience in the remaining pack members to ensure a consistent effort.

The Stormers may not be so fortunate to win in the coming rounds if they produce a similarly erratic showing against the more experienced and settled teams, and it is for this reason that their youngsters and old heads must gel sooner rather than later.

The loss of Burger will also upset the balance of that back row. Again, this wasn’t a big problem against a greenhorn Hurricanes pack that was more guts and determination than technique and synergy, but against the better organised packs with established back rows, that imbalance may be exploited.

Coach Allister Coetzee said at the start of the season that he didn’t view the loss of Francois Louw as a debilitating blow to the Stormers’ game plan. He picked Burger, Duane Vermeulen and Nick Koster to start in the back row, with Burger playing more to the ball than in recent seasons.

With Burger no longer available, it will be interesting to see how Coetzee responds. Kolisi, Koster and Vermeulen can all play on the blindside but none of these players specialise in playing to the ball. Now Coetzee may be forced to bring one of the inexperienced opensiders into his squad like Rohan Kitshoff, a player who was underutilised in the warm-up matches.

There were moments where the Stormers forwards completely dominated their Hurricanes counterparts, mauling them back dozens of metres until the visitors were forced to impede. What was disappointing is how little reward the Stormers earned in terms of attacking play. They scored three tries when four should have been the absolute minimum considering their setting of a platform after territory had been won.

The 9-10-12-13 combination didn’t fire. There were numerous examples of passes floating into open spaces or hitting the dirt, and in one instance into the hands of Beauden Barrett for an intercept try. What will help the situation in terms of the midfield is that Juan de Jongh should be back this week to partner De Villiers. It will also help that Dewaldt Duvenage, who until last week had not played a rugby match since September last year, will have used the game to shake off the rust.

Flyhalf Gary van Aswegen delivered an inconsistent performance, producing some basic errors that put his side under pressure. A better team than the Hurricanes may have captialised and punished the Stormers.

But having said that, I’m not sure Coetzee did the player or the team as a collective any favours by substituting the youngster so early in the second half. He explained it as a tactical decision, but in the long-term, it wasn’t the right call. Important players need to play in pressure situations, so how is Van Aswegen going to become that player for the Stormers if he is not on the field when the game is on the line?

Newlands witnessed a young New Zealand flyhalf in Barrett come good, while another Kiwi pivot in Tyler Bleyendaal of the Crusaders impressed in the fixture on Friday. Around South Africa, Elton Jantjies and Johan Goosen were backed by their respective coaches with outstanding results. Why then, should Van Aswegen not be granted the same faith by his coaches at the Stormers?

Peter Grant will return from Japan this week and there still seems to be a feeling that he is the answer for the Stormers at No 10. But rushing him into the Stormers’ side could create further disruptions in the backline. De Villiers said it two weeks previously; Van Aswegen needs to be backed because when Grant is not available, the 21-year-old will need to marshall that back division. He will need to be ready to handle the pressure.

What should make Coetzee’s decision easier is that Joe Pietersen enjoyed an outstanding return to Super Rugby last Saturday. He’s hit some early form in the goal-kicking department, and will be a major asset going forward. His continued involvement will allow a youngster like Van Aswegen to develop further in that flyhalf role without worrying about the goal-kicking duties as well.

Saturday’s performance against the Hurricanes confirmed that Van Aswegen is not the finished product. But considering the length of the season and the importance of depth in this competition, it would do more harm than good to bench him now.

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