Jean: We're where Bulls were
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Stormers may well be in a similar position three-times Vodacom Super Rugby winners the Bulls were just ahead of their run of trophy-hogging success in the southern hemisphere competition.
That was the defiant, and perhaps not necessarily unrealistic message delivered by the franchise's seasoned Springbok centre and acting captain Jean de Villiers after the painful 29-10 semi-final defeat to the Crusaders at Newlands on Saturday.
De Villiers, who had assumed the reins for the second half of the match after Schalk Burger's untimely, suspected thumb fracture which is likely to rule the Springbok loose forward out of the early part of the Tri-Nations, managed to remain reasonably upbeat as he cast his thoughts to the Stormers' (and by extension Western Province's) immediate future.
He drew a comparison with the Bulls team of the mid-2000s, who started to show some promise after years of Loftus malaise with successive appearances in Super 12/Super 14 semi-finals in 2005 and 2006.
"They lost each time then (to the Waratahs and then Crusaders) but eventually in their third year they managed to get the tournament win," De Villiers noted.
The Bulls, of course, then won the demanding competition twice more in the next three years.
So by De Villiers's thinking, the fact that the Stormers have made the final and semi-final stages respectively over the course of the last two seasons may bode well for a patient path to glory, if you like in the manner the Bulls once did.
"The fact that we’re playing in the playoffs of every single competition (including the Currie Cup) every year at present is good for us and we need to start winning - that's the fact of the matter," said De Villiers.
"We've got to keep the faith and keep chipping away.
"It's flipping tough tonight, and I know we keep on saying we need to learn from our mistakes, but that's exactly it. It's frustrating, but we need to stick together and keep our chins up.
"We've got such a great bunch of guys together who really play for each other."
He did, instructively, strike one rueful note, in terms of the union shedding further experienced resources in the weeks and months ahead: "Now guys like Francois Louw and Anton van Zyl are going away; players who've really been part of Western Province rugby - their families are really Western Province and all of that. It's a pity guys like that weren't able to win trophies here."
But De Villiers also returned to more chipper mode. "The fact that we basically blooded, I think, an entire team of players, one to 15, under the age of 23 ... that's fantastic for us as a union. I do think we're on the right track."
Coach Allister Coetzee, meanwhile, lauded the Crusaders for their "impressive" performance.
"They were outstanding. Our own tactics were naive and as a coaching staff and group we take (responsibility). We played too much rugby in our own half again and that wasn't the plan.
"They exploited it well and points came from turnovers they capitalised on. It was another learning experience for us - I know it's difficult to digest but you do learn from big games like this one. We look forward to next season.
"I do have to say that although our two young scrumhalves (Louis Schreuder and last-minute substitute Nic Groom) did their best, it was really tough to lose Dewaldt Duvenage ahead of the game - an experienced player who's been in situations like this and occupies a vital position. He's also instrumental in the way you want to play your kicking game.
"I don't think we've got any flankers left in the competition, either, after losing Schalk now as well!
"This Stormers team still fared really well this season, by my book. If we warrant criticism (after the semi-final defeat) then the other South African franchises probably deserve a lot more for not getting as far as we did, remember."
Asked what was required to lift the Stormers/WP from their "thereabouts" situation to actual trophy winners, Coetzee conceded: "You're 100 percent right, we're at that tipping point. What's important is to keep believing in our systems and structures.
"It's important that we also have quality in terms of depth in certain (positions). We are of the opinion that we will continue to grow from inside. The Bulls have been there for years, because they've got quality off the bench. In crucial positions we still don't have that."
Probed by Sport24 on whether some big-name recruitment would still be required to balance out the union's heavy emphasis on youth, the coach replied: "I don't think we'll be pushed by emotion out there. Yes, there's got to be a balance (between youth and experience) and we've got to get that balance right. In certain positions we do need experience in depth. But take nothing away from the experience gained by our youngsters this year.
"There's character here, a work ethic here, but you've got no control over issues like injuries ... (ideally) we want a squad of 40 players where every position is properly covered, and trophies will come.
"The bye right at the beginning of the season didn't help much, so we needed that break last week. I think next year we get our (first) bye in round four and then again in week eight or nine. Maybe that will serve us better."