Gutsy Stormers strike telling blow

JON CARDINELLI writes that attitude and belief rather than athletic ability could see the Stormers eventually clinching the South African conference for the second consecutive year.

Saturday’s result should be recorded in a manner that portrays the Stormers as the best Super Rugby team in South Africa.

For those who are concerned with wins and losses, it will be noted that the Stormers have beaten the Bulls twice at Loftus Versfeld in the past two years. For those who are concerned with details like team selection, the venue, as well as the flow of the game itself, it should be documented as an unforgettable achievement.

Every week the Stormers have had to deal with a new setback, be it an injury or a bizarre regulation that robs them of a key player. Those who have dared to say: ‘Things can’t get any worse,’ have been made to eat their words.

In the build-up to last week’s clash against the Bulls, the Stormers lost Andries Bekker to a serious back injury and Steven Kitshoff to a SA U20 call-up. They were already facing the prospect of going into a game on the highveld without their best tactical kicker, Joe Pietersen. The situation seemed hopeless when both Kitshoff and Bekker were subsequently ruled out.

How many teams go to Loftus, the most difficult place to play for travelling teams, and pick up four points? How many go to Loftus without six frontline players and win?

How many teams go to this venue without experienced Springboks like Bekker and Schalk Burger and still manage to outmuscle the Bulls?

The rhetorical questions paint a picture, they lead to an understanding of what the Stormers achieved last Saturday. The performance could hardly be described as polished, and yet it was emphatic. The physicality at the gainline was huge and the attitude of those who represented the Cape side exceptional.

Siya Kolisi has been an important player for the Stormers this season, and his powerful showing at Loftus undoubtedly contributed to the result. The man has a terrific future in South African rugby, and those who are lamenting his omission from the Bok squad should rest assured.

He will play for South Africa, and he will excel at the highest level.

Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has opted for more experienced players and combinations for the Tests against England because of the limited preparation time. Kolisi, and several other bright prospects, will only be looked at for the Rugby Championship and end-of-year tour.

Stormers coach Allister Coetzee may be pleased that Kolisi has not been rushed into the Bok set-up. While he has been terrific in his debut Super Rugby season, he has played extensively. Missing the three Tests will allow Kolisi to recover before Super Rugby resumes at the end of June.

Only three Stormers have been selected in Meyer’s squad of 32. While some people will be disappointed that the top franchise in South Africa is so poorly represented, Coetzee may not be among them. As is the case with Kolisi, it will allow star players to rest before the most important part of the Super Rugby campaign.

The Stormers have won 11 out of 13 games this season thanks to their physicality and defence. It’s been the key to their relative success in the previous two seasons, as while they haven’t won a big trophy their abrasive style has allowed them to qualify for the play-offs. What’s been incredible about the 2012 competition is that the Stormers have maintained the high levels of physicality and discipline despite losing half of the starting team to injuries.

The recent win at Loftus is testament to the fact. They’re capable of winning big games even when they don’t play their best rugby. They’re also winning these big games without their best players. It’s a credit to the coaches and their systems, but it’s also a credit to the belief of the men on the park.

I still believe there are flaws in the Stormers’ game that may eventually be exposed in a semi-final or a final. But what Saturday’s game confirmed is that the Stormers are going to be right up there at the end of the tournament, and they are the best team in South Africa.

They are now in a great position to win the South African conference. They have three relatively easy games remaining before the play-offs and what will make them favourites to beat the Cheetahs, Lions and Rebels and win that conference title is that two of those matches are at Newlands, and Burger, Nick Koster and Joe Pietersen should be back from injuries. It is hoped that Duane Vermeulen could also make a return before the knockout stages.

Expect the Stormers’ physicality and defence to become even more pronounced when men like Burger and Vermeulen return to the fray, and their tactical kicking to improve when Pietersen is once again fit.

That the Cape side has managed to keep producing such brutally effective rugby, winning rugby, in the absence of these players demands acknowledgment. Whether the Stormers have the all-round game to win the Super Rugby title is another story, but they certainly have what it takes to capture the conference trophy and advance to the semi-finals.

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