Stormers still lack champion qualities

JON CARDINELLI writes that while the best defensive teams traditionally qualify for the Super Rugby play-offs, it is the most balanced outfit that lifts the coveted trophy.

What do the Super Rugby champions of yesteryear have in common? The Reds of 2011, the Bulls of 2009 and 2010, as well as the Crusaders of 2008 were complete sides, with airtight defensive systems, superior tactical kicking games and clinical attacks. In each of the last four seasons, the best all-round team has gone on to win the Super Rugby title.

At present, the Stormers don’t measure up. Have their five consecutive wins, inspired by forward dominance and an awesome defence, earned them the favourites tag? Or should supporters from the Cape be concerned that the same old problems continue to prevent them from striking a balance so typical of a champion team?

The short answer is no.

Let’s clarify something from the outset. The Stormers are no longer the beautiful letdowns of South African rugby. They may be underachievers in the sense that they still haven’t won a big trophy in 11 years, but since 2008 they’ve built themselves up and demanded that they be judged by the highest standard.

So in answering a question about their progress and whether they’ve learned from the lessons of 2010 and 2011, you have to look at what was missing from those campaigns.

After the 2010 final, Allister Coetzee admitted that the Stormers’ kicking game wasn’t up to scratch, and after the 2011 season, he promised that the attack would be better. But going by what’s transpired in 2012, the Stormers have delivered much of the same: impressive physicality and earth-shaking defence, but very little from a tactical kicking or attacking point of view.

Forget the five wins and consider the big picture. As it stands, the Stormers have the game plan to win the majority of their matches and qualify for the play-offs. But as past play-off failures have proved, this game plan is insufficient. There’s still not enough balance in their game to win a Super Rugby trophy.

Take the 2011 season for example. Six of the seven best defensive teams qualified for the play-offs. In the semi-finals, it was the Crusaders and the Reds who prevailed over the Stormers and Blues respectively. Eventually it was the Reds that took the title thanks to the greater balance in their game.

Take a look at the teams the Stormers lost to in 2011. While they were clear winners in defensive terms, conceding just 18 tries in 16 league games, they often lost when coming up against other good defensive teams with imposing packs.

The Stormers didn’t play the Waratahs in 2011, who eventually finished the league with the second-best defensive record in terms of tries conceded (21), but they lost to the Crusaders (the third-best with 27 tries conceded), the Chiefs (fifth with 30) and the Reds (sixth with 32). On each occasion, it was the opposition’s balanced approach, read greater tactical appreciation and better use of their attack, that lent them an edge over a defence-oriented Stormers outfit.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to see that after six rounds in 2012, the top six teams are those that have conceded the fewest tries. From one to six, the Stormers have conceded seven, the Highlanders eight, the Brumbies 11, the Chiefs six, the Bulls six and the Crusaders 11.

It also won’t come as a shock if the top six are still comprised of the best defensive outfits come the end of the league stage. However, that shouldn’t suggest that the best defensive team will win the trophy.

The Stormers were impressive in their win over the Bulls, but considering their dominance up front the margin of victory should have been far more comfortable. They are still not earning full reward for that forward dominance, and the fault lies with their inconsistent kicking game, the lack of innovation and penetration in the back division, as well as an overall lack of killer instinct.

Attacking prowess shouldn’t be measured just by weight of tries, though. The Bulls have turned the kick-chase into an art form, using the kicking accuracy of their halfbacks and the speed and aerial ability of their chasers to fracture good defensive lines.

This has led to attacking opportunities, and in recent years the Bulls have shown themselves to be experts in converting the majority of scoring chances. They’re already one of the best defensive sides in the competition, but they have been successful in creating attacking opportunities with this reactive ploy. And after they manage to build a lead, they have shown themselves capable of setting the backline loose and hammering the advantage home, as the unfortunate Reds found out two weeks ago.

The Stormers have attempted to mimic the Bulls’ kick-chase without much success. Their defensive standards remain very high, but their ability to pressure opposition through an accurate kick-chase is limited because they don’t have the same quality of personnel in the halfbacks.

Scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage is their go-to man in this regard although his box kicks have been inconsistent in 2012. Considering the Stormers are without a strong tactical kicking option at No 10 (Peter Grant has failed to improve in this regard despite his patent limitations at an early age), when Duvenage is not on song, the Stormers’ options are cut down.

Last Saturday, Grant and Jean de Villiers took the ball to the advantage line, and for a short while, this appeared to trouble the Bulls’ defence. De Villiers said afterwards it had always been the plan to be direct, but perhaps the Stormers’ inside backs should vary their attack like this in future matches.

One of Grant’s strengths, at least one of his strengths during that defining 2010 season, was that he kept defenders guessing with that flat take and snipe at the advantage line. Before last Saturday’s game against the Bulls, the Stormers backline had been too predictable.

I’m not suggesting that the Stormers have to start racking up the tries if they are to be taken seriously as title contenders. They need to get more reward for their forward dominance, be it through penalties or five-pointers. And to do that, they have to play at the right end of the field.

It will be easier said than done when they come up against better packs and defensive teams, some of whom boast better tactical halfbacks, in the next few weeks. The Stormers made a statement by beating the Bulls, but the results on the Australasian tour will reveal just how much they have developed other areas of their game.

As Coetzee has said before, the Stormers want to become a complete unit. At this stage, however, they’re still a long way from realising that goal.

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