Coetzee: Stormers have made strides

Allister Coetzee has lamented a wasted opportunity following the Stormers’ semi-final exit but still considers the 2012 campaign a relative success.

The Cape side went into the play-offs with a 14 from 16 record, an unbeaten record at Newlands, and the South African conference title. It was a run of form that created an expectation, and it’s fair to say that the Stormers failed to live up to that expectation on Saturday.

In the game that mattered, the Stormers weren’t accurate enough on attack. They failed to take their chances in the first half, and were forced to play catch-up rugby in the second.

Saturday’s semi-final defeat is the Cape side’s fourth play-off loss in three seasons. It’s a damning record if you take it at face value, but as Coetzee has pointed out at various stages of the season, there have been some significant setbacks in 2012. In a way, it’s a surprise that the Stormers have got this far.

The Stormers played the Sharks on Saturday without Schalk Burger or Duane Vermeulen. Three players, namely prop Steven Kitshoff, openside flank Siya Kolisi and lock Eben Etzebeth were playing in their first knockout game. The Stormers’ injury situation at loose forward had also forced Coetzee to field Deon Fourie, a specialist hooker, at No 8.

Coetzee didn’t try to make excuses for Saturday’ performance. Indeed there were some unforgivable mistakes made by the Stormers, and not all of those were made by the rookies.

‘The Sharks put us under pressure, especially in the first half,’ said Coetzee. ‘We did not respond well. It’s very disappointing.

‘There were too many mistakes. Our kicking execution was poor and they did well to put our set piece under pressure. We struggled to get out of our own half.’

The Stormers coach wasn’t, however, completely displeased with the performance or the manner in which the team has conducted itself this season.

He conceded that it may be difficult for people to accept – and the Cape rugby public has been waiting since 2001 for a major title – but he doesn’t believe this side has underperformed.

‘If you take the emotion out of it, we are one of the three sides that have improved this season. The other two have been the Sharks and the Chiefs.

‘I think we’ve taken a big step in the right direction,’ he said. ‘It was a setback losing those players to injury, but then we did manage to win some close games throughout the season without them. I’m flipping proud that we were so close tonight, we almost forced it to go into extra time. We stood up to them physically and were never lacking for effort.

‘I know that at some franchises they won’t get that much criticism if they win just three games in a season, but the standards in Cape Town are very high. I respect that, and to all those fans out there, we are hurting just like you. But we will never stop fighting, we are going to get into a final and win that cup. We believe in this group and we will take a lesson from this.’

While Coetzee offered some perspective, captain Jean de Villiers was absolutely inconsolable. The Springbok centre produced one of the best performances of his Super Rugby career and still it wasn’t enough to help the Stormers progress to the final.

‘It’s a very tough one to swallow,’ De Villiers said. ‘We couldn’t have prepared better, and we had the attitude and commitment, but we just didn’t take our opportunities.

‘Believe me when I say, I’m starting to doubt myself and my own captaincy, I’ve been in this situation so many times,’ he added, alluding to the semi-final against the Crusaders at Newlands last year. Burger went down with an injury early in the second half, and De Villiers led the team in his absence. The Stormers ended up losing 29-10.

‘We want to get answers, but it’s tough. I don’t know what to say. We’ve been through some dark times this season and have still managed to pull through, and in that way I’m proud of this team. It’s just a pity about tonight.

‘It’s a feeling that won’t go away easily, and I’m sure we will still be feeling it next week. But I suppose we have to look at the positives.

‘A year ago I sat here talking to you after a loss to the Crusaders. It’s a different situation on this occasion, as we weren’t really in that Crusaders game. We came close [against the Sharks], so we are getting there with very small steps.’

By Jon Cardinelli, at Newlands