Stormers lack halfback thrust

    2013-05-22 06:53

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - For a second season in succession, the Stormers are counting the cost of desperately seldom having their intended, street-wise first-choice flyhalf Peter Grant available to their Super Rugby cause.

    Of course there are several other reasons, too, for their surprising withering to fourth on the SA conference table and 11th overall at an advanced stage of the 2013 campaign, after three seasons where they had been the most consistent local franchise without ever quite being able to get across the line to the coveted main silverware.

    I believe it is no coincidence that in 2010, the closest they have come yet to the title by reaching the Soweto final against the Bulls, the now forgotten Springbok Grant was at the top of his personal game and, critically, not as curtailed by injury as has been the case more recently.

    Grant has his critics, who rightly charge that he struggles for meaningful range with both his line- and place-kicking ... although the accuracy of his efforts off the tee from short-to-medium range can seldom be faulted, lest we forget.

    But he is an under-rated customer in many other respects: a bit of a modern Henry Honiball equivalent in his defensive sturdiness and fearlessness at taking the ball flat to the advantage line, which also brings his outside backs more swiftly into play on attack.

    My understanding from Stormers insiders is that Grant brings a certain comfort not only to the centres beyond him - confident in his judgement and option-taking - but also to the loose forwards who are considerably less fearful of enemy attack on the flyhalf channel when he is determinedly at his post.

    The 28-year-old Maritzburg College and Maties product isn’t the fastest horse out of the stalls, but he is also not lacking in an eye for a gap, having scored plenty of tries in that fashion himself or setting up others around him, close to the try-line.

    Grant is expected to finally be fit for consideration after the June Test window, although sadly for the Stormers they may be in the humdrum position by then of having no playoffs aspirations (that situation already just about assured) and also being well nigh safe from the promotion/relegation obligation against the Lions provided that they have seen off the Kings in one of those “eight-point swing” games at Newlands on June 1.

    The player will presumably later resume his obligations in Japan with Kobelco Steelers, a gig he understandably values from a financial point of view at an advanced stage of his career and with any additions to his handful of Bok caps very unlikely now.

    Whether Grant will be back again in 2014 is unclear: both he and the Stormers brains trust are aware that joining the Super Rugby season a little after the start is well less than ideal – not to mention the drawback of his coming straight off a Japanese season without any feet-up opportunity – although a personal view is that he remains a vital potential cog in the Capetonians’ machine if he can mercifully be kept match-fit more often.

    To me he still seems the kind of flyhalf best suited to the Stormers’ challenge ahead, which is to urgently pep up their overall offensive game without too heavily compromising their renowned defensive adhesiveness – a delicate balancing act that they nevertheless cannot shirk.

    They couldn’t get the marriage quite right against the Rebels, where they collectively played with greater freedom than before but also leaked as many tries (three) as they scored in the deflating Melbourne loss last weekend.

    It is in their longer-term interests to press on with a more positive mindset in what remains of the season, so it makes sense when the Reds come to town on Saturday for them to persist with the halfback alliance of Louis Schreuder and Elton Jantjies, both of whom mixed good with indifferent against the Rebels.

    That has been a bit of a problem all season: nobody has really grasped the nettle at either nine or ten on a consistent basis, with Lions recruit Jantjies’s body language oozing strange self-doubt for a man with proven first-class talent, Gary van Aswegen not empowered enough to be a general in the fullest sense at No 10, and a right old merry-go-round between the scrumhalf trio of Dewaldt Duvenage, Nic Groom and Schreuder.

    The match-day squad combination of scrumhalves has fluctuated wildly all season so far for the Stormers, and when I put it to coach Allister Coetzee even before the recent, largely ill-fated overseas leg that it seemed a sign of lack of genuine confidence by him in any one of them, he gave the predictably diplomatic response that it was tough choosing between “three quality players”.

    Duvenage, once a relatively staple presence in the position, has suffered through his tactical-kicking standards slipping a little this year, whilst Groom has not built forcefully enough thus far, a tier higher, on his strides during the overdue Currie Cup-winning campaign of 2012.

    With both flyhalf and scrumhalf such time-honoured positions of string-pulling importance in rugby union, it is little wonder under prevailing circumstances that the Stormers are coming up short as true title challengers.

    WP Rugby Union president Thelo Wakefield hinted in a newspaper interview this week that “reinforcement” (or read: a foray into the transfer market) could not be ruled out and you would think scrumhalf, especially, may feature in any exploration in that regard.

    But there is also much head-scratching to do about which flyhalves to prioritise at Newlands in the immediate future.

    Can and should Grant be coaxed back once more in 2014? Is Jantjies worth offering a longer-term deal to? And how about a fresh approach, probably under some public pressure, to Province old boy Demetri Catrakilis in the event that the Kings are relegated from Super Rugby?

    Questions, questions ...

     *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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