Stormers pack claims first big scalp

JON CARDINELLI writes that the seasoned heavies as well as the young Stormers forwards made a massive statement in Saturday’s beating of the Bulls.

The expression on Andries Bekker’s face at the final whistle said it all: nothing beats beating the Bulls.

It hasn’t happened too many times over the past decade, and only a couple of times in Bekker’s career. It’s for this reason that you can forgive him for celebrating wildly after the most recent result. It’s a big win in isolation, but even more important for a Stormers pack before a testing tour Down Under.

Bekker hasn’t enjoyed much success against the Bulls in recent years, as he was previously up against the then incumbent Bok No 5 Victor Matfield. Saturday’s game at Newlands saw the Bulls fielding a team without Matfield, who has since retired, and Bekker didn’t miss a great opportunity to take control.

It didn’t matter that Matfield, now the Bulls lineout consultant, had worked with the Pretoria side in the build-up. It also didn’t matter that the Bulls fielded a lineout unit boasting Springboks like Chiliboy Ralepelle and Flip van der Merwe, as well as the impressive yet uncapped (as far as Test rugby is concerned) Juandré Kruger. Bekker and his Stormers pack were up to the lineout challenge, ultimately nullifying one of the Bulls’ traditional strengths.

The Stormers countered the Bulls’ attempts to maul, showing superior aggression at the point of contact as well as incredible discipline. The Bulls let themselves down in this regard, and were often penalised by referee Craig Joubert for transgressing the laws.

After a great start to the 2012 competition at the lineout, they will view their defeat at this set piece in Cape Town as an important lesson. Just as Bekker and company were schooled by Matfield and the Bulls in previous years, so the Bulls will be better for a beating at the hands of a class act like Bekker.

The Stormers had a terrible third quarter and the final scoreline suggests the Bulls gave as good as they got. But 20-17 wasn’t a fair reflection of the Stormers’ superior forward effort. It could be said that the half-time score of 14-0 was also a poor return considering the Cape side’s dominance up front, and not for the first time this season the finger of blame can be pointed at the backs for a static attack and a largely ineffective kicking game.

Any win against the Bulls is achieved via a superior performance up front, and for this reason, the Stormers deserved to take the spoils in Saturday’s combative contest. Not enough is made of the fact that they field three rookies, all under the age of 21, in their starting pack week after week. And yet, the youngsters and experienced heads are combining to produce some of the most dominant Stormers forward displays of the past few years.

Loosehead Steven Kitshoff is enjoying a fantastic first season, and combining well with Tiaan Liebenberg and Brok Harris in the front row. As assistant coach Robbie Fleck suggested a couple of weeks ago, it’s been a long time since the Stormers had such a dominant scrum. The youngster’s introduction has also inspired other seasoned heads to lift their efforts, and Liebenberg, in an all-round capacity, is starting to get back to his tackle-busting best.

Bekker was always going to take some time to regain form after missing seven months of competitive rugby, and Saturday’s game against the Bulls showed why he is the natural successor to Matfield as the Boks’ lineout manager. Under Bekker’s tutelage, Eben Etzebeth has flourished but has also brought his own edge to the game. Etzebeth’s aggressive attitude has been central to the Stormers’ tackle fight this season, which is great news for a pack that already boasts abrasive players like Liebenberg and Duane Vermeulen.

The latter player has been in phenomenal form and will be in the Bok mix later this year if he remains fit. Vermeulen’s work as a ball-carrier has only been exceeded by his contributions as a kamikaze-style defender. His prowess at the breakdown and ability to turn over possession is often unacknowledged, and while he’s no Francois Louw in this regard, he does lend a fetcher-less outfit that little bit extra on the ground.

Rynhardt Elstadt made a solid return from injury against the Bulls, and seemed determined to remind everybody why he was considered the Stormers’ answer to Bakkies Botha before Etzebeth was blooded. On the other flank, Siya Kolisi is less rabid in the manner in which he conducts himself, but no less effective. Like Vermeulen, he has made some powerful contributions as both a ball-carrier and the type of defender that smashes opponents back in the tackle.

It’s for these reasons that the Stormers haven’t missed Schalk Burger. The Stormers captain was injured in the first game of the season, but Kolisi and the pack as a collective have marched on in abrasive fashion, out-muscling their counterparts at the Sharks, Blues and Lions before making a bigger statement against the Bulls.

Because of this coach Allister Coetzee can allow Burger to stay at home while the team tours Australasia. If the Stormers had not gathered such great forward momentum in the past few weeks, perhaps Burger would be asked to join the trip. As it is, Burger will use the extra time to heal fully.

There are weaknesses in the Stormers’ game as a whole, but what is encouraging is that the pack has continued to grow with each outing. There are greater challenges to come, with the Highlanders in terrific form in the forwards and the Crusaders stacked with All Black heavies. The Reds have struggled in 2012 but do have a number of Wallabies in their pack, and the Force possess a strong lineout and the best fetcher in the world in David Pocock.

Burger will rejoin the squad when they return from their tour, but in the interim Coetzee will need to manage his team carefully. The youngsters should continue to play and gain experience but at some stage Coetzee will need to look at an alternative for Bekker in that key No 5 role, and also ensure that Vermeulen, a player that gets through a lot of work, is not overexposed as has been the case in the past few seasons.