Vodacom Super Rugby
Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Stormers keep key players
Cape Town - There was so much disappointment at the team’s exit from the current Super Rugby competition that it wasn’t noted at the time, but Jean de Villiers after the Newlands semi-final did have some encouraging words that should lighten the gloom for Stormers fans.
Standing in for regular captain Schalk Burger, who was unable to come back onto the field after halftime because of injury, the Springbok centre repeated what has been said often - perhaps too often for the liking of Cape supporters - this season: “We need to learn from this, absorb the lesson and apply the lesson”.
Why that should be encouraging is because it is further confirmation that the group of players that comfortably won the South African conference this year saw this season as part of a process and not the be-all and end-all of their aspirations in the Stormers jersey.
Unlike several other Super Rugby teams, the Cape side will be back together next year, and as such they will be in a position to learn from the experience they have picked up in two losing finals (one Super 14 and one Currie Cup) and now a semi-final.
“We need to learn from it (the mistakes made against the Crusaders), if you look at a team like the Bulls they also made the playoffs when they first started becoming successful as a team without quite making it all the way,” said De Villiers.
“The Bulls lost in two semi-finals and then in their third year they managed to get the win.”
With the Super Rugby draw they were landed with this year always loading the odds against them, the Stormers have always been looking at an extended plan rather than just a narrowly defined one. It is why no less than 11 new players, some of them only just out of Under-21 ranks or even still eligible for the age-group teams, were blooded this year by the Stormers in Super Rugby.
Rassie Erasmus, the man in charge of rugby matters at the Stormers franchise, made it known a week before the semi-final that regardless of whether they succeeded or failed in their quest for silverware this season, the drive for southern hemisphere dominance by Schalk Burger’s Stormers team will continue into 2012 and beyond.
While the Bulls waved goodbye to several legendary figures and stalwarts of their decade of success last weekend, and are among the many Super Rugby franchises that will be rebuilding next year, the core of the Stormers team that won the South African conference and ended second on the overall log in successive years will be staying together beyond this World Cup.
“I know there is a perception that the World Cup will bring an end to an era, and that may be the case elsewhere, but it is the contrary with us,” said Erasmus.
“About two months ago the senior players, numbering among them about seven senior Springboks, met with me to discuss the future of WP and the Stormers. The group included guys like Schalk (Burger), Jean (De Villiers), Andries Bekker and Jaque Fourie.
“They all said they wanted to be part of the Stormers plans beyond the World Cup, and wanted to sit down with me to help plot the future and help with bringing through the many talented young players that are coming through our systems. It was a very encouraging meeting as all those guys seem very committed to wanting the Stormers to start a culture of sustained success and they want to be part of it.”
The impressive Francois Louw is leaving to take up a contract with Bath, veteran lock Anton van Zyl is on his way to French club Bayonne at the conclusion of the Super Rugby season, as is Ricky Januarie. Other than that, the only other member of the current team who, because he is just at that stage of his career, might be open to an overseas offer, is Bryan Habana.
Even if Habana leaves, however, the Stormers have a flood of youngsters coming through the ranks, and Erasmus is still confident he can hold onto Johann Sadie, who is busy negotiating his contract and is being pursued by the Bulls, where it is understood he is being dangled the carrot of being first choice outside centre.
Sadie is the only recent Stormers newcomer that was part of the impressive 2010 WP Under-21 team that has not committed himself as yet to WP for next year. All the other Colts, the recent age-group players who have already played for the Stormers, and those that are still waiting their chance but have been earmarked as stars of the future, have signed.
So have the next tier of players, the players who have been stalwarts in the past few seasons without making the top tier of Springboks.
“The only guys who haven’t signed yet are guys who are wondering whether they should go for a two year contract or a three year contract, or some of the Boks who are just waiting to see what is going to happen with the national contracts next year. But they are all committed to staying,” said Erasmus.
Apart possibly from loose-forward, where the loss of Louw will leave a big hole, the wave of youngsters coming through means there is no real need for WP to contract from outside of the region for next year.
The loss of Januarie, for instance, is off-set by the strides being made by Louis Schreuder, who started a semi-final in only his third game for the Stormers, and Nic Groom also got in some big match experience on the day. Another graduate of the WP Institute in Stellenbosch, Ricky Schreuder, is considered to have a bright future. Van Zyl will be missed for his leadership but there are several young locks coming through.
And while the way the Stormers scrum disintegrated against the Crusaders in the semi-final was disturbing, anyone who knows the talent coming through courtesy of the new culture that Erasmus has introduced from the lower levels should feel confident that the corner will be turned in the not too distant future. And it's not as if the Stormers scrum battled this year against the other top South African scrumming teams like it did in previous seasons.
Neither of Steven Kitshoff or Frans Malherbe are yet out of the Under-21 ranks (Kitshoff was at school last year), while another current age-group player, Siyabonga Ntubeni, was blooded at the start of the Super Rugby season. Deon Fourie grew immeasurably as a quality Super Rugby hooker during the period that Tiaan Liebenberg was away with injury.
The Currie Cup season will confirm how quickly these youngsters will be ready to play Super Rugby next season, but if you consider where Rynhardt Elstadt, one of the best locks in the country this year, was this time last season you wouldn’t bet against them hitting next year ready to do the same by showing up much more experienced opponents.
Finishing second on the final overall log, and being the first team to win the South African conference trophy, was no small achievement if you consider the obstacle that was posed by the Stormers’ ridiculous draw, which saw them start the competitive season a week late and have their campaign divided into two separate sections of eight successive games. If they get it right next year, and admittedly they will have the mighty Crusaders to contend with again as the main obstacle, there is no reason they shouldn't look back on what has gone before as just part of the process towards becoming a champion team.