Stormers’ wobble: poser for Allister

2016-05-23 18:04
Allister Coetzee (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – A few weeks ago, it looked almost inevitable that new Springbok coach Allister Coetzee would be kindly disposed toward Stormers players for his first national squad of the season to be announced on Saturday.

Coetzee will be under pressure, as all fresh appointees to the unforgiving green-and-gold role are, to hit the ground running against Ireland in the three-Test home June series, and it is frequently the norm for men in his position to “go with who they know” initially before gradually embracing a more universal approach.

In his case, as head coach of that franchise for a full six years until the end of 2015 – a period in which they were the most consistently competitive South African side, even as the overall title remained elusive – personal memories will still be fresh of the players he tutored and styled to his way of doing battle.

Right up to the last three weeks or so, too, he would have looked quite justified in pinning mass faith in Capetonian-based stars for his initial plans -- much like Heyneke Meyer unapologetically did at the outset of his tenure in 2012 when he gave generous scope against England, in his maiden series, to Bulls players he was comfortable and familiar with.

Before their not so merry month of May, the Stormers were looking very solidly placed not only to make the quarter-final cut but win Africa Conference 1, thus only underlining their reputation for being possibly the toughest South African nuts – whatever their shortcomings in an overall context -- to crack in the competition.

But with the Test season looming large, that franchise have chosen a bad time to glaringly lose their mojo, to the extent that if ordinary season ended today they would be goners, just outside the quarter-final zone.

They are in the throes of their worst period of the season, with no wins from three games and problematic performances – even if in slightly varying ways -- against all of the Waratahs (loss), Sunwolves (draw) and Bulls (loss).

Especially in the latter two matches, the Stormers’ lack of attacking punch and finesse has been freshly apparent.

Apart from their now precarious knockout-phase status, they currently lie fifth among the half-dozen SA sides in the “tries for” column, with a mere 28 to show even if their concession scorecard (19) is the best both domestically and overall. (If you wanted to be cynical, you could say “what’s new there?”)

By contrast, the Lions have run in 48 often handsomely-constructed tries – second only to the Chiefs competition-wide – and dished up almost certainly the most progressive, watchable rugby of all the SA teams which explains their premier spot in the race for the title from these shores.

So the Stormers regressing into old, rather crude and blind-alley habits, a phenomenon that also reared its head at times during Coetzee’s tenure, will not make the broader domestic public and some critics hugely partial right now to a strong Bok-squad show of confidence for players from Cape climes.

Saturday’s events at Loftus, where the Bulls ground out a deserved and precious 17-13 derby triumph, probably saw the Bok prospects of certain Test “possibles” in the Stormers’ ranks dip a little rather than stiffen.

While men like Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Damian de Allende and Juan de Jongh (albeit nursing a hamstring problem at present) should be relative shoe-ins for the expanded first national squad Coetzee will name, others who may have been considered good tips to make the cut, given their prior associations with the coach, may feel less secure about their chances now.

Into that category might fall Cheslin Kolbe, the nippy, mercurial little fullback whose physical limitations regrettably came to the fore anew at Loftus, and the two hookers on their books who are among several candidates nationwide for the role, Bongi Mbonambi and Scarra Ntubeni.

 The unravelling of the Stormers’ set-piece – both scrum and lineout – hardly helps advance the claims of the latter two, does it?

Another area where the Newlands-based outfit look rather at sixes and sevens is at the breakdown and in loose-forward play more broadly, where Robbie Fleck has battled for some time to work out who his best trio really are and which specific berths they are best suited to.

All of Nizaam Carr, Siya Kolisi and Schalk Burger (it is still not clear if the Bok veteran wholeheartedly intends trying to advance his tally of 86 caps, amassed since 2003) played second fiddle to a fired-up Bulls collective of Lappies Labuschagne, Jannes Kirsten and Arno Botha in the derby, even if a beaten front five also goes a long way to explaining that outcome.

Burger at least produced a customary bite-the-bullet sort of game, even when impeded by a troublesome ankle that he hastily asked to have heavily strapped in the second half, but I felt that Kolisi was particularly “AWOL” at times during the uncompromising tussle.

Kolisi is a highly talented rugby player, and thrives in front-foot situations, but there is ongoing debate about whether he is a better blind-sider or open-sider and the danger exists that the answer is actually somewhere in between.

Bok starter against Ireland? Not for me, on strictly 2016 evidence.

But even if Coetzee is inclined to slightly trim his Stormers quota of players, bear in mind that two, now overseas-based pack stalwarts of his era at Newlands could well still crack the nod: Duane Vermeulen and Steven Kitshoff.

Their special qualities were rather missed in Pretoria at the weekend …    

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    stormers  |  super rugby  |  allister coetzee  |  rugby

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