Test match tactics can pay off

JON CARDINELLI writes that the conservative Stormers and Waratahs should be criticised for inconsistency rather than poor tactical intent.

Rugby supporters need to face up to the reality that tactical kicking is a fundamental part of the modern game. Until the IRB changes the laws, the smarter teams will continue to play for territory.

There are many who bemoaned the quality of Saturday’s match at Newlands. I would agree that it wasn’t pretty, but I could understand what both teams were trying to achieve. The Stormers attempted to suffocate the Waratahs with their physical defence, while the visitors hoped to fracture that defence with a series of high bombs and raking probes.

Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said afterwards that the Waratahs kicked 20% more than they usually do, which is an indicator of how much they rate the Cape team’s defence. It wasn’t a flawed ploy, but it was overdone and rarely implemented with much accuracy. Some of the Waratahs’ punts lacked the necessary air-time to be effective and in some instances there wasn’t enough pressure from the kick-chase.

Another reason why their kicking accuracy wasn’t up to standard was their inferiority at the breakdowns and collisions. The Crusaders and Reds enjoyed success at Newlands last year when they dominated these areas and then kicked in behind the Stormers’ defence. They won the forward battle as well as the battle for territory. This is the key to beating the Stormers. You don’t go through them, you go over them.

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that the teams that prize physicality, a sound tactical kicking game and a watertight defence are currently in the top six. The Chiefs and Bulls have scored far more tries than the Stormers, but their appreciation for the trends and the adjustments they’ve made to their respective game plans (especially with regards to the Chiefs) has been crucial to their success in 2012.

And it’s because of the successful execution and blending of all these facets, that is their dominance at the gain line, smart territorial play and sound defence, that they have been able to score tries. The big difference between teams like the Chiefs and the Stormers however is that the Chiefs have been more consistent, and more ruthless, when they’ve been presented with attacking and counter-attacking opportunities.

The log suggests otherwise, with the Stormers boasting an impressive 10 from 11 record, but the Stormers continue to battle for consistency over an 80-minute period. Last Saturday was again an example where they played themselves into a position to win the game comfortably, but then lapsed badly.

I wrote before the Waratahs game that the Stormers would do well to win all three of the remaining matches before the break for June internationals. I said that the Stormers, who have been hit by injuries to their back row, would take any sort of win.

They must be satisfied with yet another four log points, but it must also pain them to know that in the context of individual games like those against the Cheetahs and Waratahs, they have built big leads but have failed to ram the advantage home.

There has been heavy criticism in the Cape regarding the Stormers’ lack of four-try bonus points, but I don’t buy into the idea that they need to alter their tactics in order to score more tries. I agree with captain Jean de Villiers that consistency is needed.

They scored zero points in the second half against the Cheetahs and three in the last 40 against the Waratahs. When you look past the points and analyse the performance, it’s notable how their levels of intensity and accuracy of the first half don’t match that of the second.

The Waratahs will regret their own inaccuracies in Saturday’s game, as it was the application of their tactics that was at fault rather than the tactics themselves. Forget the booing of the ignoramuses. They came into the game with the right idea, but just couldn’t execute efficiently.

What they did highlight once again is that there is a chink in that defensive armour of the Stormers. We’ve seen it before with the better tactical kicking teams putting the ball in behind the Stormers’ defensive line. It is something the Stormers’ next two opponents, the Sharks and the Bulls, will surely look to attempt.

Coetzee called last week’s clash ‘a Test match’, and given that it was a tactical arm-wrestle, the description was fairly apt. The Stormers did well to bag four log points from that encounter, but can expect similar ‘Tests’ in Durban and Pretoria in the next fortnight.

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