Player rotation is no longer an option with the Stormers requiring a record-breaking run Down Under to qualify for the semi-finals.
In the wake of a fantastic performance against the Lions, Rassie Erasmus spoke about player management as integral to any franchise’s success. The Stormers coach said no team can win through to the play-offs by starting the same side every week, as fatigue and injuries will eventually take their toll.
Unfortunately for Erasmus, the results have not come for his side. The Stormers secured the five log points against a woeful Lions, but it is their four previous performances that now see them under pressure. The failure to get the bonus point against the Reds and the loss to the Blues may come back to haunt them. If they had bagged those points, they would be heading to Australasia with the comfort of top-four position and Erasmus would in turn have the luxury of managing his players.
But it hasn’t gone to script and the Stormers’ current situation is a precarious one. In seventh place, they now face the toughest of tours. They travel to New Zealand to face the tournament champions before heading across the Tasman to tackle Australia’s best in the Waratahs and Brumbies. Then it’s back to New Zealand to face the Hurricanes, their most difficult fixture, before heading down the road to Dunedin for an ugly scrap with the Highlanders.
Three tour wins may have been targeted in the pre-season, but the Stormers’ early slump means anything less than four victories may not be sufficient. The schedule is the worst possible for a South African team, as when you’re playing three of the previous year’s semi-finalists away from home, the odds are stacked against you.
Just as the Stormers are capable of losing to any side on a bad day, they are capable of beating the best on a good one. They thrashed the hopeless Lions on a good day, and while that should give them confidence it should not hide the fact that the overseas teams will be significantly better than Loffie Eloff’s mob. Every match from hereon in is a final for the Stormers, the first make-or-break fixture in Christchurch.
The week off will do the Stormers good, but Erasmus will know his best charges will need to front in every match. If the Stormers taste success against the Crusaders, the same side may start in Sydney. And so on.
The Stormers played with plenty of structure against the Lions, and Erasmus admitted this was a strategy they would favour in the coming weeks. The Stormers coach never said as much, but Willem de Waal may be retained at pivot. His kicking placed the Lions under plenty of pressure, and the Stormers kept them pinned in their own half. The Stormers also seem to have struck a balance between the conservative and adventurous, kicking out of their own half and running from within their opponent’s.
Due to backline injuries on Saturday, De Waal and Peter Grant were forced to play 10 and 12. With Nick Koster and Tonderai Chavhanga ruled out for extended periods, Erasmus has the option of keeping a winning backline that includes Jean de Villiers at 13 and Gcobani Bobo on the wing. Bobo was especially industrious, and his physicality would be a boon when the Stormers front teams boasting 100kg beasts out wide.
But Conrad Jantjes’s return to fitness may force a reluctant Erasmus to play the Springbok fullback on the wing. This would strengthen the Stormers’ kicking game, as with the De Waal, Jantjes and Percy Montgomery on the park, you’d expect the Cape franchise to better most teams in the territorial battle.
The back row fired this past weekend but this is one area where Erasmus may continue to juggle his options. As long as Schalk Burger is at the heart of the breakdown effort, the Stormers should do well. Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen have displayed a fine work rate while Luke Watson’s skills can be utiltised in a starting or impact player capacity.
The lineout continues to be one of the Stormers’ core strengths while the scrum is a concern. Wicus Blaauw has proved himself on the Super Rugby stage, but Brian Mujati struggled against Heinke van der Merwe, one of the world’s best looseheads, at Newlands last week. The problem for the Stormers is they have no other tighthead options with JC Kritzinger and Brok Harris out of action. Former Lions No 3 Bertus Smit is on standby, but Erasmus may be afraid to alter a ‘winning’ combination.
By Jon Cardinelli