Stormers have exceeded expectations

JON CARDINELLI praises the Stormers for maintaining their winning ways despite the absence of seven frontline players.

‘It was one of the best victories of the season,’ remarked coach Allister Coetzee following the Stormers’ 27-17 win over the Lions. Coetzee was relieved, which was unsurprising considering it was a game the Stormers could well have lost. In the end, it was the result that mattered given the team’s struggles with injuries, illnesses, suspensions and fatigue.

The Stormers’ performance against the Lions was woefully inconsistent, but Coetzee won’t be too concerned. What mattered was that the Cape side banked four log points, and remain on course for a first-place finish in the South African conference.

They are two wins away from realising their pre-season goal, and at this point, are still in the running for that coveted top spot on the combined log.

I’ve been one of their biggest critics this season, although I feel it is their kicking game rather than a lack of four-try bonus points that could ultimately cost them in a play-off situation. That being said, the fact that they are still in the running for the play-offs, and the No 1 spot, is nothing short of incredible.

Their record stands at 12 wins in 14 games, and their results have created an expectation. I think the expectations are unfair given the amount of injuries they’ve sustained throughout the season.

If the Stormers had lost more games in recent rounds perhaps people would be forced to accept that losing so many star players can indeed compromise a title surge. But because the Stormers have kept winning, the injuries and absence of big names has gone largely unacknowledged as a compromising factor.

I’m amazed that this Stormers side has done so well in spite of those injuries. What team loses players of the quality and experience of Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen and still manages to maintain such levels of intensity and aggression? What team goes to Loftus Versfeld without those unique momentum-generators, and without a lineout genius of the calibre of Andries Bekker, and comes away with a win?

Coetzee and his management team should take a bow, but so too should the fringe players. The Cape side may not have won any trophy of significance since 2001, but it’s clear that a plan is in place and the standards are high.

When your third- or even fourth-choice players deliver the type of performance seen at Loftus five weeks ago, then you know that your franchise has fantastic depth.

And good depth is certainly an essential requirement in this new marathon Super Rugby competition. The Stormers have had to deal with injuries in every department, but have only lost two games. Even though they won’t have Burger and Vermeulen back until the play-offs, there is a strong chance that they will win their remaining games and top the SA conference.

They will be boosted this week as several players return from rest, illness and suspension. Steven Kitshoff was rested for the Lions game, and will make a timely return for a testing front-row battle with the Cheetahs. Bryan Habana and Joe Pietersen will be back after missing last week’s match with flu, and Rynhardt Elstadt has completed his one-week ban.

It’s unlikely that lock Eben Etzebeth will be available, as he is still battling with an ankle injury. He’s been a key player for the Stormers, even though he’s only into his first season of Super Rugby.

And yet, you get the feeling that the Stormers will cope without Etzebeth against the 10th-placed Cheetahs. They’ve created that expectation that their second and third-choice players are good enough to do the job.

After a visit to Bloemfontein, the Stormers will return to Newlands for their final league match against the 12th-placed Rebels. Two wins in their final two games should secure the conference title, and the fact that the Bulls and Sharks will meet this week will also help them in that respect.

Whether the Stormers have developed their game to the point where they can win a big play-off is a different story, and I’m not sure that they will take the necessary momentum, that is the team synergy and accuracy, into the knockouts.

It is unfortunate that Burger, Vermeulen, and Nick Koster (the Stormers’ first-choice back row that has been sidelined for several months) may not receive game time before the play-offs. They will be rusty when they return, although Coetzee will need to fit them into his match 22. Quality and experience are needed in the play-offs.

But any evaluation of the Stormers’ 2012 season should have some perspective. We’re heading into the penultimate round of Super Rugby and we’re still talking about third-choice players like Tyrone Holmes, Don Armand and Jebb Sinclair. Injuries have resulted in their elevation, and the fact that the Stormers have won with these players should not create any expectation that they should win the title.

Defeat in a semi-final or final will not be as damning as some expect. It should not be met with the same disappointment that followed the failures of 2010 and 2011.

It may not have been acceptable to consider play-off qualification an achievement before the start of the season, but given all that has transpired on the injury front, anything beyond that must be considered a bonus.

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