Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Is the Stormers’ unquestionably top-notch
defensive game becoming just a little too dangerously like an obsession that
impedes other areas of their battle-plan?GALLERY: Past weekend in pictures
Perhaps the time has come for some honest reflection within
their camp, on that very theme.
Those disinclined to want to fiddle with what looks, on paper
at the very least, like a notably “winning formula” – nine wins from 10 Super
Rugby games is exactly that, statistically – could argue that the Stormers are
right up among the front-runners and there is thus no reason to tweak their
More forward-thinking, pro-active people may well be tempted
to offer a slightly contrary view: a good start to their argument might be
along the lines of “with fewer losses than anybody else, surely they should be
comfortably out in front of the pack?”
It is tight at the top, admittedly (and the Brumbies are
above them artificially in terms of the dubious Super Rugby conference
structure) but the fact remains that despite yet another victory at the weekend
the Stormers lie only fourth overall as things stand.
And certain figures stand out like a sore thumb against
them, casting some doubt, like it or not, on their ability to genuinely become
a “championship” team at long last.
At least two of their columns on the overall log – tries
for, and bonus points – stayed glaringly poorly-stocked following their 16-14
outcome against the Cheetahs in a frankly hideous, inept, embarrassingly sterile
game of rugby by both sides on Saturday night.
I would only watch it again under duress – as if, maybe, institutionalised
Alex in the controversial 1971 movie classic “A Clockwork Orange”, his eyes
gruesomely wired open by sadistic scientists to watch newsreel-type scenes of
nauseating violence while under radical, nausea-inducing “therapy” for his own
Was I the only one who thought the derby fixture that awful
a viewing spectacle?
The winning outfit, playing at home before a healthy,
expectant audience who went home badly let down for quality of entertainment despite
the result, could only manage one try ... and Eben Etzebeth’s barge-over, while
a fitting product of concerted forward pressure at the time, wasn’t the sort
you would nominate for any “Top 100 tries of Super Rugby” sort of DVD.
It left the Stormers with 17 tries after 10 matches, and it
doesn’t require a calculator to work out that that means an average of 1.7 to
their favour per match.
There is a certain haplessness – and it does the franchise’s
attack strategists no favours, don’t you think? -- to the fact that the
Stormers’ try tally thus far is superior only to one of the other 14 sides in
the entire competition: the rock-bottom Lions (15 dot-downs).
Whilst SA conference leaders the Bulls are significantly
inferior to their great Cape rivals in try-concession terms, it is becoming
more and more educative to note that they are leaving them well behind in the
more “positive” column: they are averaging much closer to four tries a match
(3.6) for a strike rate that is more than double the Stormers’.
Until a few years ago, there was a long-time tradition of
believing, often with justification, that north-south clashes served up great
contrasts in philosophy: the Bulls with their brawny packs and Naas Botha-type
“kicking” flyhalves, and the Newlands culture being based much more around
fluid, daring “Province rugby”.
That trend is beginning to turn around to a quite
significant extent, even if Capetonian enthusiasts have certainly not objected
up to now to conscious efforts to harden up, if you like, Stormers/WP forward
play and install near-impregnable defensive principles.
But for how much longer, especially as the cabinet for major
trophies remains bare, will the Newlands faithful tolerate what seems either a
dwindling commitment to attacking pizzazz or, more worryingly perhaps, creeping
bankruptcy in it?
With their swelling record in 2012 for failure to bank
four-try bonus points (even in much poorer seasons, I can’t think of many
Stormers sides going 10 matches without one full-house win to show for their
troubles) the team is simultaneously being blunted in their bid to nail down
vital top spot and the attached likelihood of a home final.
Their lone bonus point, which came for running the Crusaders
suitably close in their only loss thus far, sticks out like a sore thumb among
the teams presently occupying the six-strong playoffs spots.
That solitary point is at least four fewer than sported by
anyone else in that zone, effectively amounting to an extra “loss” for the
Stormers, when you really think about it.
It is also fewer bonus points than any other side in the
whole competition, although as you look down the table it is inevitable that
many teams losing more than they are winning will bank fairly regular bonus
points for surrendering games within a seven-point margin.
The Stormers’ brains trust often argue that as long as the
team keeps winning, a log position at or as near as damn it to the top will
take care of itself. That may be proved to be so ... but there is also a case developing
for saying that it may just not.
What was so disconcerting about their struggle to subdue the
Cheetahs was how they opened up a sizeable 16-0 first-half lead, which seemed
to offer a promising suggestion that they were doing plenty of “sagmaak” in
preparation for a four-try hunt, but then fell back horribly into a kind of
soak-it-up, defence-orientated comfort zone rather than really striking out
adventurously to put the match right out of reach for the Free Staters.
Let’s not forget also that defending desperately for long
periods, however yeoman and organised it may be, takes a significant physical
toll – a toll that probably accumulates almost unknowingly to some extent as a
season drags on.
One shaft of light after Saturday’s yawn-inducing slop was
captain Jean de Villiers’s refreshingly candid confession immediately
afterwards that things would have to improve dramatically – and he singled out
the “attack” aspect – if the Stormers were to stay in the race.
It seems there is at least a will among the players to
provide some long overdue sparkle; we simply await suitably slick execution
There is mounting pressure now, I reckon, for the Stormers
to do more than “just win again” when the Waratahs come to town next Saturday.
Would it be too much to ask them to play some rugby?
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing