Stormers start to feel squeeze

    2013-03-31 12:03

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - If the Stormers are to finally land that elusive maiden Super Rugby title in 2013, it looks increasingly likely that they will have to do so the hard way.

    They could not achieve it as SA conference winners in 2011 and 2012, even after securing the attached right to successive home semi-finals, and already some pundits are sure to be suspecting that this year even supremacy in their group is becoming a tough ask - they may have to qualify for the knockout phase via the trickier wildcard route.

    While it is very true that the Stormers also continue to be stalked by an injury bogey that has sidelined several core personnel, the cold fact remains that on Saturday they failed, before a home crowd of some 47 000, to cash in on a best opportunity in some time to finally put one over the wily Crusaders.

    VIDEO: Stormers v Crusaders, highlights

    Considering that the New Zealanders entered the fixture off a long-haul trek, and were missing a handful of their most integral names, the host team crashing 19-14 was an ominous event, one which will have cynics questioning afresh the Stormers’ title pedigree.

    Do they really have the go-forward oomph in their tight five, and is their general battle-plan multi-pronged and dynamic enough to take them all the way to the August 3 silverware?

    These remain issues swirling uncertainly in the Cape coastal breeze.

    Their management and players are proud and spirited folk, and it is way too early to jump to the conclusion that the Stormers will fail to go all the way once more: for the record, I still fancy that they are playoffs material, with recent victories over the high-quality Brumbies and last year’s champions the Chiefs confirming that.

    But the Sharks arguably do have the inside lane, as things now stand, to claim the local conference.

    With a tenuous two wins from their first five starts, the Stormers simply must beat the in-form Cheetahs - aiming for an unprecedented five wins on the trot when they entertain the Capetonians in next Saturday’s headline SA game (17:05 kickoff) - as ammunition to take into the second derby meeting of the season with the Sharks at Newlands a week later.

    The last-named game really amounts to one of those potential “eight-point swing” affairs: if the Sharks repeat their 12-6 success at Kings Park in early March, they will really be in the driving seat.

    A sobering thought for the Stormers is that they won the conference in 2012 with just two defeats, and a year earlier did so despite four.

    Three losses down already and with 11 ordinary-season matches yet to play, how many more reverses can they afford, especially with the ever-taxing overseas tour still to come?

    Perhaps their best hope is that the South African conference somehow becomes a group of death, with nobody emphatically bossing it.

    Coach Allister Coetzee and captain Jean de Villiers are usually fairly upbeat characters, but they were visibly crestfallen and economical with words at Saturday’s post-match media conference.

    “Very disappointing result ... mistakes again cost us tonight,” was Coetzee’s initial appraisal.

    “Clearly this team stands for physicality, which we brought, and the attitude was unbelievable. Even with 14 men on the field (Duane Vermeulen’s yellow card for a tip tackle, which may yet have further repercussions - Sport24) we defended like Trojans.

    “But you can’t play this game if you can’t win your set-piece, and especially your lineout; that’s where we battled. That’s why we couldn’t put them under pressure with ball in hand.”

    It is not Coetzee’s way to single out individuals for criticism, but at the same time if the coaching staff are going to deny Deon Fourie has an ongoing, chronic problem with his throwing in to the lineout, then they are probably also non-believers in death and taxation.

    They are in a difficult position because the nuggety Fourie is otherwise such a bubbly and committed character in open play - debate will surely re-open around his better suitability, perhaps, to a place among the loose forwards.

    Tiaan Liebenberg, their best thrower and also scrummaging hooker, has another inconvenient injury at present, and they still await Currie Cup 2012 hero Scarra Ntubeni’s first full contact training shortly, after a long layoff of his own.

    “It’s not just a throwing in issue,” Coetzee insisted. “There are a number of (reasons) we must look at and hopefully fix.

    “The Crusaders also had some skew lineouts; there will always be a couple. But we lost six, and I know that’s not good enough at this level. Our lineout was non-existent.

    “The Cheetahs also have a good lineout, so that’s an aspect we have to get right this week.”

    De Villiers, who had another plucky individual game at inside centre, denied that his troops have some sort of mental block against the Crusaders, to whom they have now lost four times on the trot, including three at Newlands.

    “I don’t think it’s the opposition that’s the problem. It was the execution of the team, the mindset of the individual and just the way we played. It really felt as if we made so much progress in the last two games, and we’ve let it slip again this time.

    “I’m pretty disappointed tonight. We took a couple of steps back.”

    Coetzee, hardly altering his glum disposition, revealed that the team had a further spate of injuries to contemplate.

    “At this stage we have a few (players) who possibly won’t be there next week ... Steven Kitshoff will be the only player returning, and I am concerned about Gerhard (van den Heever) who got a bump to his knee, and also Pat (Cilliers) who hurt his hand and forearm.”

    Remaining Stormers fixtures:

    April 6: Cheetahs (a); April 13: Sharks (h); April 26: Hurricanes (a); May 3: Blues (a); May 11: Waratahs (a); May 17: Rebels (a); May 25: Reds (h); June 1: Kings (h); June 29: Cheetahs (h); July 6: Kings (a); July 13: Bulls (h).

     *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing  

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