Stubborn Stormers will stumble

MARK KEOHANE argues the Stormers problem is a defensive coaching mindset and not a lack of options in their pack.

Among the more astute and analytical rugby writers in the country is the Cape Argus’s Zelim Nel, who outside of being a fine fellow, is also a rugby coach.

He writes very differently to most who report on the game because he is more a coach who writes than a writer who coaches. I am always interested in Nel’s take on a match and he is good value. Do yourself a favour and get the Argus for his analytical pieces.

Nel, though, feels much of the Stormers try-scoring woes stems from vulnerability among the pack. He lamented an indifferent lineout that has lost its potency in the enforced absence of Eben Etzebeth and he wrote of the Stormers being an inferior collective when it comes to the pack presence.

The Stormers, in their two defeats, have struggled at the set phases. In Pretoria the lineout and scrum were poor and individually the players were second best in the collisions. In Durban the lineout was better but the players were again shaded in the collisions and the pack, in the scrum, were decidedly second best.

But I disagree with Nel that the primary reason the Stormers backs don’t function fluently is because of a poor pack effort. I think it has more to do with the predetermined plan that is all about defence and then thinks about attack.

The Sharks forwards are among the strongest in the tournament and there will be many packs the Stormers will dominate and yet I still can’t see them maximising scoring opportunities. I base this assessment on their tournament history in the last three years.

The mindset of head coach Allister Coetzee is too defensively orientated and the Stormers play with no risk and rely on defence to win matches. It has been a proven formula over a three year period in which they have won 80 percent of their league matches, but they’ve bombed in play-off matches when asked to show more than a defensive mindset.

Super Rugby is not Test rugby. Super Rugby requires more imagination than just making tackles.

The Stormers certainly have the players with the necessary attacking skill and where I disagree with Nel is that the pack is good enough. There have been occasions in the last three years when the Stormers have taken a more attacking approach into a game and scored tries but it has naturally resulted in them leaking more tries. One such occasion was against the Cheetahs and immediately there was criticism of their defence, and within a week the side reverted to type.

A side that places a premium on attack is going to be vulnerable to conceding more tries, but a side that only relies on defence can rarely sustain the defensive effort over a six month period.

Western Province, in the Currie Cup, played with more balance in attack and defence, but the quality of opposition was inferior the best sides in Super Rugby. What has impressed me about the Blues is the attack is not compromised by a desire to defend. It is possible to do both.

Coetzee and his predecessor Rassie Erasmus have restored credibility to Stormers rugby and they are no longer the soft touch or the show ponies of a decade ago, but there is a difference to fixing a side and turning them into champions. The Stormers are no longer the pretty boys of South African rugby, but they are now the most boring side in the tournament, the most predictable and the most pedestrian on attack.

There are fantastic individuals and the quality of player makes for a squad among the top five in the tournament. But the conservative mindset is doing the players a disservice. Watching the Stormers play is like watching Heyneke Meyer’s Boks on the end of year tour. Or like watching white paint dry on a white wall.

It doesn’t make for pleasant viewing and while Meyer will always be able to convince many that Test rugby is a different beast and that it is only about the result, Super Rugby requires a more liberal approach in which no team can win every weekend, so a win at all defensive costs mindset isn’t a winning formula on the field. It won’t seduce supporters either or fool them.

The Stormers will win the majority of their home matches and they will be miserly on defence away from home, but never in the last three years have I ever felt this was a team that would prove masters in the play-offs and I think it has to do with the approach of a coaching staff who play not to lose instead of playing to win with substance and style.

The Stormers are a side that won’t easily finish outside the top six but they are also a side that doesn’t inspire visions of winning the tournament and frankly, outside of 1999 when they played magnificent rugby and I thought they would win, I’ve never been convinced of them as champions.

They are a good side but to win this tournament you have to be very good, in attack and on defence.