MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, writes the Stormers have shown remarkable resilience to be in such a position of strength with one week of the regular season remaining.
The Stormers did not lack for ambition in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs. They did bloody well to win the game and the atrocious weather was always going to limit the potential of four-try bonus points. The Stormers were composed in their approach because they knew they had to win first before thinking of the additional bonus points.
They are one league point from finishing top of the table. League leaders the Chiefs, away from home in their final outing, have the tougher assignment this weekend.
The Stormers play the Rebels at Newlands and it is in this match that they will score the four tries needed to get the additional league point. I am taking it as a given that they won’t lose to Australia’s newest franchise, a squad that plays with great ticker but which, in only their second season of existence, still has too many journeymen to challenge the better teams on the road.
The Rebels have the greatest prospects of the Australian teams to become a dominant force. There is much interest in Melbourne, excellent financial backing and already the two biggest backline names in Australian rugby, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, were signed as soon as they came off contract last season. Most players are at the end of their contracts at season’s end, so expect more big-name players to be among the Rebels’ challenge in the next two years.
For now, they represent the most favourable prospect for the Stormers, whose achievement to sustain a winning momentum cannot be overstated.
Other teams that have suffered equally severe disruption have taken a few on-field beatings, dropped points regularly and used the lack of consistency in performance as mitigation for their failure to make the play-offs.
The Stormers, as a unit, have shown remarkable resilience to be in such a position of strength with one week of the regular season remaining.
I have been critical of their lack of attack, which is not to be confused with any lack of ambition to score tries. There is certainly effort every week, but the Stormers for the past three seasons have played to a predetermined style that is defensive-orientated.
It was the view of the management and senior players that defence would be more effective in their play-off hopes than all-out attack.
With a week to go, they are justified in their approach. I don’t particularly favour the mindset that lacks a balance in defence and attack, and there are many among the most loyal Stormers support base that will argue there is little joy in watching the Stormers.
Again, the Stormers will point to the league position, a home semi-final with the potential to still host a final, and ask for some perspective.
They would also be justified in thinking they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. I do recall the Kobus van der Merwe school of Stormers who favoured all-out attack and got pumped in every second home game and took 75 points against the Bulls at Loftus.
The side has not evolved their play on attack, but they have certainly consolidated their standing as the best defensive unit in the competition, regardless of whether they play home or away. The players have also shown dedication to the jersey, the franchise and the supporters in their absolute commitment to defend their line and maintain their discipline every week. They have done it with an inexperienced front row, without Andries Bekker for half the tournament, and without their frontline four loose-forwards including the incomparable Schalk Burger.
Those who have been highly critical of the Stormers this season — and I have been very vocal — have to also ask themselves: is the aim of the squad to make the semi-finals and create an opportunity to win the tournament, or to be a mid-table finish playing flamboyant rugby, but rugby that comes with risk and a style that may actually suit weaker opponents?
The Stormers took a business decision in their strategy and have achieved the necessary results. This needs to be recognised because it unfortunately is not a sport but a business in which home play-off matches and trophies determine the success of the season financially.
The romance that the Stormers have always played expansive rugby is also nonsense. They’ve won nothing for the last decade and the rugby was damn awful at times.
The most balanced South African side, in approach, has been the Bulls. But they, like the Crusaders, have also been among the most inconsistent.
I was surprised at the defeat against the Sharks, but it was more a case of the Sharks winning it than the Bulls losing. The Sharks were brilliant and the Lions, thank goodness, were brave and got the reward of a rare win.