JON CARDINELLI writes that the ends of a first-place finish have justified the Stormers’ pragmatic and uninspiring means.
The post-match press conference following Saturday’s win over the Rebels was pretty pointless. What was there to say except congratulations? How could any criticism be aimed at coach Allister Coetzee when he was sitting beside the South African conference trophy? How could there be any suggestion that a more adventurous playing style would have been more prudent when the Stormers have done enough to finish the league stage in first place?
‘This thing wasn’t easy to win,’ said Coetzee as he placed a proud hand on the trophy. It’s the second year in succession that the Stormers have claimed the conference title, and the third where they’ve finished the Super Rugby competition in the top two. They may not have won the title that matters yet, but their consistency surely confirms that they are doing something right.
In 2010 they showed that they had the game plan to win a championship, but not the mentality. 2011 was much the same as they were beaten by the Crusaders in the semi-finals. Where 2012 has been different is that they’ve shown the bloody mindedness needed to edge some close encounters. It’s an attitude that’s allowed them to win all eight of their home matches, and achieve a 14 from 16 record overall.
As Coetzee said on Saturday, this team has moved on. Whether they’ve moved on enough to win the Super Rugby trophy will be revealed in the next two to three weeks, as the play-off games are different beasts. But at this point, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the magnitude of their most recent achievement, especially considering the difficulties they’ve faced regarding injuries.
That the Stormers are imperfect is not up for debate. There are elements of their game that require polishing, but these problems are related to the execution of their game plan rather than the game plan itself. And if you’re thinking about arguing the point, you’d better check the log again.
The current laws reward teams that place an emphasis on gain line dominance, territory and stingy defence, and the fact is reflected in the six sides that have qualified for the play-offs.
They all subscribe to the philosophy of execution over innovation, and even the Sharks have embraced a more-territory oriented approach in the latter stages of the competition. On the other end of the scale, teams like the Lions and Cheetahs have tried to create too much and have been duly punished.
Some would baulk at the comparison of the Chiefs and Stormers, and may believe that the Crusaders and Reds are exciting, free-running teams. I would agree on the count that the Chiefs, Crusaders and Reds have scored some outstanding tries this season, but where they differ from the Stormers is that they are superior finishers. The Stormers may be a bloody-minded outfit, but they lack killer instinct when it comes to turning attacking chances into tries.
What they do have is a faith and belief in their systems, and for that they’ve been rewarded with 14 wins and a first-place finish. I will admit that some of those performances have been painful to behold, but in sport the ends justifies the means. If they obtain the desired result, why shouldn’t they receive praise? Is there not beauty in finishing first?
They conceded 21 tries in 16 games, nine fewer than the next best defensive side, the Chiefs. It hasn’t mattered that they’re the worst attacking side in the tournament in terms of tries scored (28). Defence and uncompromising physicality, as well as the accuracy of Peter Grant’s goal-kicking boot, has put them into a position to host a semi-final and final.
As I’ve mentioned, they’ve managed to do all this without producing the most accurate performances. They’ve achieved a first-place finish without a host of first-choice players, and incredibly the high injury count hasn’t compromised their league campaign.
There will be less margin for error in the play-offs. This is also the stage where the best players leave their mark, and as a depleted side that will be forced to field a number of inexperienced forwards, the Stormers will be at a disadvantage.
They will enjoy the advantage of playing at Newlands, and they will know that they have the type of game plan to win championships. They will, however, need to be far more accurate than they have been in recent weeks if they’re going to claim that elusive Super Rugby title.
They’ve shown terrific ticker up to this point, but it’s going to take more than ticker to win the title that matters.