Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Tear up your script, Stormers brains trust ... this one has finally hit the buffer. If you can’t hear the horrible crumpling of metal, you are lamentably deaf.
Winners of the cruelly nominal SA conference trophy for two seasons in a row, supporters of the big Western Cape franchise were reasonably entitled to believe this might be the season where they took the great step up to overall title glory.
Instead Allister Coetzee’s charges have conspicuously lurched backwards in 2013, despite pre-season optimism that they had done all they could to ensure formidable squad depth for a really big push.
The best-supported outfit in Super Rugby, it is almost certainly safe to say the patience of their long-suffering fans has reached breaking point, following yet another lamentably bankrupt display in attacking terms as the team succumbed to the Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday.
With a meagre four wins from 10 outings, the Stormers’ mostly home-soil run-in is now – barring an unlikely miracle in relentless conquest and sudden chutzpah – an academic exercise, with likely red-arrow consequences for attendances in four of the six remaining assignments earmarked for Newlands.
Will the team and their coaches be enlightened enough to admit they have a clear-cut problem? Will the administration have the testicular fortitude to demand urgent answers, a revised plan of action and perhaps shake necessary bags, however tough-loving the process may have to be?
The wholly understandable suspicion of many Stormers diehards -- whether found correct in the short- to medium-term or not -- will be that the current playing and coaching personnel peaked between 2010 and 2012 when three home semi-finals in succession and one appearance in the showpiece fixture itself could not quite produce the grand prize.
For considerable chunks of that predominantly winning period, most of those partial to their cause were prepared to accept the glaring conservatism and defence-obsessed nature of their battle-plan because it somehow eked out plenty of triumphs ... even if so many of them were notably joyless and by desperately narrow margins.
Suddenly nail-biting wins, however, are being substituted all too regularly by nail-biting defeats -- and all the while the poverty of their offensive play has shown no signs at all of relief.
Statistics tell a very stark tale: the Stormers are once again well on “course” to be the most try-shy team in ordinary season, especially as on Saturday evening they were left well alone at the bottom of the pile as Luke Watson’s ultra-committed Kings ran in four to leap to 21 visits to the whitewash after entering the game level-pegging with the Capetonians on a mere 17.
Keep in mind that last year the Stormers produced the rather novel, largely unwanted feat of topping the overall table despite their 28 tries from 16 pre-knockout phase matches being the worst tally of the entire 15-team field.
And in 2011, they also banked a home semi despite showing the fewest four-try bonus point hauls (four) of all six teams making the playoffs.
Spot a pattern?
It is a slightly scary thought, too, that when the Stormers end their four-match overseas leg in Melbourne on Friday, the Rebels team they face will in all likelihood stay a motley crew defensively, but at least one that enters the clash with considerably greater health in the “tries for” column (29).
The Stormers are rapidly becoming the sort of team that television-watchers willingly abandon for a few minutes at a time, especially if they’re in action on a Saturday when a spot of DIY may be required around the house, the pool may need vacuuming or the leaves swept ... you go away thinking you probably won’t miss any magic; any mercurial, inspiring moment.
Nick Mallett may be legendarily outspoken and yes, it is easy to criticize from the relative sanctuary of a TV studio, but his views resonated with so many people – if you don’t believe me, check Twitter – when he accused the side of “very sterile rugby” after the largely tedious late reverse to the Waratahs.
“You can’t win the Super Rugby competition with such a one-dimensional game-plan,” the former Springbok coach and Western Province glory-days No 8 also said, pointing out that the Stormers struggle painfully at present for phase-play longevity and almost bizarrely look less rabbit-in-the-headlights when they don’t have the ball.
Of course injuries cannot entirely be overlooked: the Stormers have had plenty of them again in 2013, to add to a near-freakish quota a year before – early signals suggest loose forwards Duane Vermeulen and Rynhardt Elstadt may have returned to long-term crocked lists after limping off with knee injuries in quick succession towards the end of the punishing Sydney encounter.
Then again, is there perhaps a mounting case for arguing that the very Stormers template is at least partly responsible for the ever-present “virus” on that front?
Does the tackle, tackle, scramble, scramble nature of their match-day formula, gradually fatiguing and bone-rattling as it must be, do them no favours for casualties?
For three years the Stormers management have wished us to celebrate the beauty, if you like, in the team’s defensive acumen and adhesiveness: it’s a bit like saying Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is a lovely place because it has an attractive entrance hall.
The paying public, I’m quite sure, are more than eager to witness some “non-negotiables” (that’s what their defence is branded, with some pride) from the Stormers of a much more easy-on-the-eye kind.
They want to see gates prised cleverly open, not merely slammed shut and, of late, not even adequately locked ...
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