JON CARDINELLI writes the Stormers’ sustained forward aggression and attacking variation will be put to the test when they front the Crusaders this week.
The Stormers may have been feeling the pressure at the start of 2012, but there’s little doubt that each subsequent win has lightened the mental load. It could be said that after winning six from six, a record that makes them the only unbeaten team in the competition, there isn’t too much pressure on the Cape team to beat the Crusaders in Christchurch or the Reds in Brisbane.
During the planning stage of their campaign, the Stormers coaches would have identified these two league fixtures as the toughest. The Crusaders and Reds not only qualified for the 2011 final, but beat the Stormers in the build-up to the play-offs. They did so at Newlands, and so you would expect them to be even tougher to beat in Australasia in 2012.
But this season has seen the Stormers gaining something more than a six from six record. They’re constantly talking about a winning culture and the collective belief that has swelled with every victory. It’s for this reason that they won’t be looking at the coming game as one they can afford to lose, but indeed one they could well win.
The coaching trio of Coetzee, Matt Proudfoot and Robbie Fleck were speaking about the clash with the Crusaders during the Stormers’ bye week in round three. Listening to them talk, you got the sense that they wanted to make a statement against a Crusaders side that had beaten them twice in 2011, the second time through a dominant forward effort.
After the Sharks game, Proudfoot said that he had been impressed with the progress of the pack. In subsequent weeks, the forwards coach has spoken about tweaking the game in certain areas but has always commented on the growth of the unit as they overwhelmed the opposing pack on each occasion.
There were doubts that they would get up for a game against the Highlanders. They’d invested so much into the forward-oriented melee with the Bulls the week before. They’d endured a taxing journey to Dunedin. Surely the forwards couldn’t get up for another bout with a hard-nosed Highlanders pack?
There were instances where the Stormers were overpowered, and numerous examples of inaccuracies at the breakdown point. But apart from a few lapses and moments of indiscipline, the Stormers forwards again showed tremendous heart and no small measure of collective clout.
It bodes well for the coming match against the Crusaders, a match they have been looking forward to all season. They won’t have Schalk Burger, who is recovering from a knee injury, but they will feel confident that they can match the Crusaders, especially since their scrum has done so well in 2012.
The Crusaders started the season slowly but have become more of a force in recent weeks. They so nearly pipped the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, and the result aside, they showed what they are capable of when their forwards fire.
While the Stormers will have recovered from their jet lag, the Crusaders will come into this match on the back of a long journey from South Africa. And yet, there’s good reason to believe the travel won’t detract from the Cantabrians’ performance.
The Crusaders showed their mettle last season when the effects of an earthquake forced them to play the majority of their matches outside of Christchurch. They eventually qualified for the play-offs, and flew to Cape Town to tackle the South African conference champions. They not only beat the Stormers on that occasion, they blew them away.
So the Stormers shouldn’t be counting on fatigue to slow the Crusaders down. They also shouldn’t be expecting the off-colour outfit that turned out for the first few fixtures. The determined showing in Pretoria was a powerful statement: the Crusaders are back. And after the eye-gouging allegations that have since been proved false, they are angry.
The Stormers will need to play out of their skins to match the Crusaders forwards. From there, they will need to do more with their attacking opportunities.
They were more clinical in turning turnovers into points against the Highlanders, and that showed how an aggressive defence can be used as a powerful offence. But they may not enjoy such dominance against the Crusaders.
They also won’t be let off the hook when they don’t protect the ball. The Highlanders put the Stormers under pressure at times but failed to earn much reward. They affected a series of breakdown turnovers and won numerous penalties in this area, but still struggled to breach the Stormers defence.
The Crusaders may boast a potent attacking unit, but they play a similar game to that of the Stormers and Bulls. They attempt to pressure teams with a dominant forward effort and savvy tactical kicking display.
Much will depend on the performances of both packs this Saturday, but if the respective heavies cancel each other out, then the Stormers backs will need to produce something different in order to compromise that impressive Crusaders defence.