Testing times await Stormers pack

JON CARDINELLI writes that consistency is now the Stormers’ biggest challenge as they build towards the more demanding forward battles on their Australasian tour.

The Stormers are three from three and top the South African conference. Their forwards have been aggressive, accurate and disciplined and at this early stage of the Super Rugby competition they appear to be favourites to qualify for the play-offs.

But while the recent performances have provided reasons to feel encouraged, it must be noted that there are more testing times to come for the Cape franchise.

Forwards coach Matt Proudfoot said it recently when asked to comment about the progress of the pack. While he was pleased with how the young forwards had fronted in 2012 he stressed that the pack was striving for a higher level of competency before they meet the likes of the Crusaders and Reds on their Australasian tour.

It’s fair to say the Stormers pack has made steady progress since January. The scrum was a source of embarrassment in the pre-season, especially against the EP Kings, but they have since rectified the problem areas and turned in some dominant showings in the matches that matter.

Young Steven Kitshoff got the best of Springbok tighthead Jannie du Plessis in that match against the Sharks, and Kitshoff as well as the entire pack dominated this set piece in the most recent clash with the Blues. The Stormers have also been one of the most disciplined teams at the breakdown in the first four weeks of competition, conceding fewer penalties than their opponents on each occasion.

While Proudfoot and the other Stormers coaches have given credit where it’s due, they have also been quick to put these performances into perspective. The Hurricanes came to Cape Town with a new-look side, the Sharks travelled to Cape Town without several key forwards and the Blues were forced to tackle the Stormers with a pack missing three All Blacks. So while it’s been encouraging to see a Stormers side doing well up front, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that they are ready to outmuscle Super Rugby’s powerhouses just yet.

It will be argued that the Stormers were also understrength in their first three matches. Because of injuries to Deon Carstens, Rynhardt Elstadt and captain Schalk Burger, coach Allister Coetzee was forced to start greenhorns like Kitshoff, Eben Etzebeth, and Siya Kolisi. These youngsters have shown that they belong at this level, and as a collective, the Stormers pack hasn’t lacked any punch or precision despite losing physical forwards like Burger and Elstadt. Nevertheless, it’s correct to say the Stormers have excelled despite the injuries.

And yet, more will be expected of these youngsters in the coming weeks. They will play the Lions in Johannesburg this Saturday and the Bulls in Cape Town the next week. Following that, they will depart for a tough tour that includes fixtures against the Highlanders, Crusaders, Reds and Force.

It doesn’t get any tougher if you’re a South African forward. At the start of the season, the Stormers would have identified those away matches against the Crusaders and Reds as massive challenges, but now that four rounds of the tournament have elapsed they will need to add the trendsetting Highlanders pack to the list. Jamie Joseph’s side has been especially difficult to handle at the breakdown.

And it’s not as if the Stormers will enjoy a gentle build-up to that tour Down Under. They would be expected to put the Lions away at the set pieces given the Johannesburg side has suffered several tight five setbacks, but they should expect the Lions to be typically abrasive at the gainline.

The Bulls have maintained their hard-nosed attitude despite losing a host of Bok forwards at the end of 2011, and will also be looking to manhandle their traditional rivals in that big derby in Cape Town.

Winning at home is non-negotiable for a team with play-off aspirations, but a successful tour will place the Stormers in a commanding position. To be successful in this regard, they will need to win the forward battles.

It bodes well for the side that several players are set to rejoin the Super Rugby squad in the coming weeks. Elstadt, Carstens and Wicus Blaauw played for Western Province in the Vodacom Cup over the weekend and could be included in the Stormers team for the game against the Lions. Burger, who is recovering from a serious knee injury, will be used on the tour itself.

It’s not only a testing time for the players, but a challenging period for the Stormers management. Coetzee will want the younger forwards, three of whom debuted this season, to gain as much experience as possible before going to Australasia. At the same time he will want to give men like Elstadt game time without disrupting the dynamic or hampering the side’s progress.

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