Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - DHL Stormers coach Allister Coetzee acknowledges that his team will be going into a different phase of the Super Rugby season from this week, with the derby phase being put behind them until the last two league matches against the Toyota Cheetahs and Vodacom Bulls in June.
However, while the Stormers have got it spot on this season by bringing to the derby fixtures what perhaps they lacked in the past, namely physicality and a half-crazed aggressive mentality, Coetzee believes the core ingredients of their approach to derby matches will have to be retained for the long awaited clash with the Crusaders at Newlands on Saturday.
Six of the nine matches played so far by the Stormers have been against fellow South African teams, and only one of those games, the most recent one against the Sharks, saw them pick up a bonus point for scoring four tries. But apart from the opening fixture against the Lions, when the Stormers were at a disadvantage because of a first round bye, all the other wins against local teams have been by quite comfortable margins.
And that includes wins against the Bulls and the Sharks (twice), the two teams that beat them in finals last year where the Stormers were criticized for being bossed physically by their opponents. Coetzee and his staff placed a big premium on upping the physicality of their approach, and they have been rewarded by being able to easily outmuscle and maybe even intimidate both the Sharks and Bulls in three matches.
“Maybe it is a sign that we have now learned how to play derby games, we know how physical you need to be to win those games,” agreed Coetzee.
Coetzee did not say so, but the proportion of derbies to fixtures against overseas teams thus far may be at the heart of his team’s failure until the most recent match to put together the attacking plays that the Newlands faithful appear to demand. Derbies generally don’t produce great attacking rugby, and tend to be dominated by testosterone and play out as an arm-wrestle.
A second look at the Sharks match on video on Sunday brought home just how brutally physical the game was, and the level of aggression, which translated into a number of off-the-ball incidents which in retrospect it was surprising some of them weren’t cited, was something seldom if ever seen from a Stormers or Western Province team.
It was almost as if the Stormers were over-compensating for the way they were man-handled by teams like the Sharks and the Bulls in the past, and Coetzee, when asked about it, referred only to the comments made after the game by the Sharks coach John Plumtree.
“I think Plum summed it up, I don’t think there is any more that needs to be said on the matter,” said Coetzee.
What Plumtree said was that the physicality in the South African game had shifted to the south, and that the Stormers had now opened a wide gap on his team by doing to the Sharks what the Sharks used to do to them.
But while he knows that the matches against overseas teams might bring a slightly different mentality and will be approached in a different way by the protagonists than derby matches are, Coetzee is also clearly mindful of the contributing factor to their solitary defeat so far to the Reds.
Although it was chiefly because they were out-kicked that day that the Stormers lost, the way the Reds unexpectedly fronted them in the physical exchanges and made it impossible for them to get into the game through provision of front-foot ball was a massive part of it.
“We ned to front up with physical intensity against any team, and for 80 minutes. The Force did it for 60 minutes against Crusaders and then disappeared, and look what happened. We cannot afford to do the same against the Crusaders as they are an excellent team, almost a complete side,” said Coetzee.
“You’ve got to pitch up with that physical intensity (of the Sharks match), otherwise you will be bullied and get shunted and shoved around. And when you have the ball, it is up to your ball carriers to run hard and put pressure on your opponents, to get on top of them, imposing yourself physically.
“I suppose the challenge is different, and the mental approach will be different this weekend. But the physical intensity still has to be there.” Of course Coetzee knows from experience how important physical dominance is against the Crusaders as it was the key ingredient in their 42-14 win over the Crusaders last April.
“I think the Crusaders are a lot stronger this time, some of the big name players they have now, such as Sean Maitland and Robbie Fruean, were just starting out back then. And then of course there is Sonny Bill Williams, who brings something completely different to the challenge with his ability to off-load,” said the coach.
“I think that the game against us is a game they have been building towards, and likewise with us. We are looking forward to testing ourselves against such classy players. It is what the sport at this level is all about - testing yourself against the best. It is one of the reasons all the guys have been so looking forward to this game.”