Perspective required when rating Stormers

JON CARDINELLI writes the Stormers’ campaign was compromised by a high injury count rather than a characteristic lack of composure.

The manner of defeat was disappointing, but was the result really that unexpected? This is the question Stormers fans should be asking following Saturday’s semi-final defeat.

It is usually the case that a team’s success is determined by how far it progresses in a particular tournament. For a regular play-off contender like the Stormers, a Super Rugby title win should denote success.

The Cape side has lost two finals and three semi-finals in the space of three seasons. Their title drought has spanned 11 long years. These are the numbers that critics and fans care about, and these are the facts that will be cited when most deliver their damning post-season reviews.

But to accept this view is to subscribe to a perception that is simplistic, narrow and more than a little hysterical.

I don’t believe the Stormers’ game plan and selections have been flawless, but I do believe the 2012 season has been different to those of the past.

It’s unfair to marvel at the manner in which the Stormers have responded to the challenges of the past five months and then denounce a play-off failure as just another in a long line of mental mishaps.

Indeed, what the Stormers have succeeded in doing this year is convincing a lot of people that they could survive without several key players. In reality, how can a team be expected to go on and win a championship when they’ve lost the quality of Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen? The Crusaders are always a less daunting prospect when Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are unavailable, and as the recent season will confirm, the Bulls are easier to beat now that Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez have moved on.

Every team must cope with injuries and losses, but the Stormers’ loose forward stocks were depleted to the point where they had lost their capable reserves as well as their stars.

Nick Koster and Nizaam Carr were ruled out, forcing Rynhardt Elstadt to move from lock to flank. Sanzar turned down the Stormers’ request to include Canadian Jebb Sinclair in the play-offs, necessitating Deon Fourie’s shift from hooker to No 8. Club players like Don Armand and Tyrone Holmes were also promoted to the greater squad.

The Stormers’ results may have convinced the rugby public that they were capable of absorbing the losses, and credit must go to the coaching staff as well as the youngsters for fueling that belief.

Eben Etzebeth, Steven Kitshoff, Siya Kolisi… these are the rookies who made it look so easy during the regular season; they convinced everybody that the gap between junior rugby and Super Rugby was really not that big. On Saturday, however, we were reminded exactly why experience is crucial in play-off matches.

Etzebeth was the exception in the semi-final, showing a temperament and attitude that belied his years, but the other youngsters in the Stormers side didn’t rise for the big occasion. As a result, the Stormers weren’t successful as a collective.

I’m not suggesting that the Stormers are absolutely without fault. I maintain that their kicking game is inadequate, and it was certainly a weakness in their most recent defeat.

Peter Grant has proved a match-winner in front of goal, but his line-kicking is not up to standard. Coach Allister Coetzee complained that the Stormers couldn’t get out of their half in Saturday’s semi-final, and Grant’s boot was partially to blame.

Usually this weakness is offset by the contributions of Dewaldt Duvenage and Joe Pietersen, but when those players don’t come to the party, the Stormers struggle to win the territorial battle.

The set piece is still an area of concern. Kitshoff has emerged as one of the finds of the season, but as a unit, that Stormers scrum has been too inconsistent. The lineout is not the force it was in 2010, as the hookers are struggling to find their jumpers. The much vaunted maul has also delivered an underwhelming showing.

While these shortcomings and areas of concern need to be addressed, there should also be some perspective. The injury situation has forced many forwards to play out of position, and the changes in personnel has often prevented the pack from settling, even if that lack of synergy has rarely been reflected in the results.

Somehow the Stormers managed to top the log with what they had, somehow they managed to convince many people that they had a shot at winning the title. And who knows, if they had won through to a home final, it may have been possible.

There are reasons to feel encouraged if you consider that Burger and Vermeulen will be back for the 2013 season and a number of youngsters will be going into their second season with plenty of starting experience.

While there should never have been an expectation to win the 2012 trophy following the loss of so many key players, there will be great expectations for the Stormers to go all the way in 2013.

For now, a little perspective should ease the pain that accompanies a play-off defeat. Fans and critics must also accept the fact that the Stormers were beaten by the most complete side in the tournament.

Follow JC on Twitter
Follow SA Rugby magazine on Twitter