Ugly win highlights Stormers’ shortcomings

JON CARDINELLI writes the Stormers’ recent attacking misfires are consistent with a perennial problem.

The Stormers spoke about courage under fire following Saturday’s 15-12 win, coach Allister Coetzee stating the team had become more successful at closing out tight games. Both Coetzee and captain Jean de Villiers said they would take an ugly win over a beautiful loss, alluding to another substandard performance that proved just enough to claim victory.

What a difference three points makes. If not for the heroics of Peter Grant, who booted a touchline conversion in the 78th minute, the game would have ended in a draw.

Losing or drawing at Newlands against a depleted Sharks side should never be construed as acceptable for a Stormers team with title aspirations. If Grant had not booted that winning penalty, the Stormers would be forced to provide answers for their attacking impotence, and for their inability to bank scoring chances as a whole.

Regular goal-kicker Joe Pietersen had a bad night as far as composure was concerned, missing four of his seven attempts. Grant’s penalty ensured that the Stormers entered a bye week with eight log points from two rounds, or as De Villiers impishly put it: ’12 from two’ (four points are awarded by Sanzar in bye weeks).

Does this mean that all is hunky dory in the Stormers camp, and that they have shown that they will be more than mere play-off contenders in 2012? Are the inconsistencies on defence, the botched scoring chances in open play and in front of the posts, as well as the slew of unforced errors suddenly swept under the carpet of ignorance? Or should this Stormers side be working overtime in the next two weeks to remedy their attacking ails?

To be fair, Coetzee and De Villiers resisted the air-punching following the win over the Sharks. Coetzee said there was plenty to work on, while De Villiers promised the attack will become more of a force as the season progressed.

Nevertheless, Stormers supporters will listen to these comments and feel an uncomfortable sense of deja vu. The assurances and pleading for patience is nothing new. And everybody will remember how the 2011 season ended.

The excuses for a lack of attacking synergy following Saturday’s showing were plentiful. De Villiers said the condensation and the extreme heat made the ball difficult to handle. Coetzee said players returning from injury needed time to settle, and that several youngsters were still acclimatising to Super Rugby.

The gist of comments made last Saturday are all too familiar to those made by the Stormers captain and coach during the early stages of last year’s competition. The Stormers began the 2011 season with some ugly wins, and the management declared itself satisfied that a platform was being established. The forwards were performing, the defence was standing firm. So what, they reasoned, if the tries remained elusive. Given the time to build some synergy, the four-try bonus points would come.

Fast forward a year later and the Stormers are still battling to impose themselves on attack. They finished the 2011 season with only 33 tries in 16 league games, and while they started their 2012 campaign with three tries against a disjointed Hurricanes outfit, they finished their second game against the Sharks tryless.

Coetzee admitted after the Sharks game that their struggles for forward continuity had affected their potency, and asked for supporters to be patient. But again, the question has to be asked why the fire, or even a hint of a spark, has been absent two matches into the season. Is there any reason to believe the Stormers will strike the balance between defence and attack that’s been missing from their game over the past few seasons. Promises and assurance were made in pre-season, but we’re still waiting on the Stormers to deliver on these promises.

Some would take aim at the Stormers’ backline, but both the forwards and backs are at fault for a gross underachievement. In the fixture against the Sharks, the Stormers won just 47% possession and 49% territory. They were disciplined, conceding only six penalties, but coughed up too much ball via handling errors and wayward tactical kicks.

They only kept the ball through seven or more phases twice over the course of 80 minutes. The scrum turned in a surprisingly good showing considering the number of greenhorns in their pack but the lineout was inconsistent again. The forwards fired in patches at the breakdown but it wasn’t enough to supply the backs with good ball with which to attack. The Stormers made one measly linebreak; they never looked like scoring a try.

It’s easy to dismiss all the stats, to point to the Super Rugby log like De Villiers and claim the Stormers are on course and exempt from criticism. But a closer look at the quality of their performances will reveal that they’ve been lucky to win the last two games, and that against top opposition they may be found wanting as they were in 2011.

They won ugly on numerous occasions last year, but lost to the big teams. They suffered defeats to the Reds, Bulls, and Crusaders when they failed to negotiate the forward challenge as well as the tactical kicking battle. Because they were unable to win the possession and territorial battles, they struggled to score sufficient points, be it through penalties or tries.

If the Stormers are serious about shrugging off the label of pretenders and are serious about contending for a Super Rugby title, they will need to start performing consistently in all departments and striking a balance in their game. Going by their recent showings, they are some way off from realising this goal, and one wonders if there is enough in this side to ensure they succeed in 2012 where they failed in 2011.

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