Stormers testing Smal’s humour

    2015-05-06 16:02

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Simply beating the Brumbies will be the overwhelmingly paramount objective of the Stormers and the majority of their supporters in the appealing Super Rugby match at Newlands on Saturday (17:05 kick-off).

    Winning, especially at this advanced stage of the campaign with the stakes rising for all playoffs challengers weekly, tends to trump any aesthetic considerations.

    So whether it may be achieved by an 18-15 (likelier, perhaps?) or 36-28 type of score-line is largely immaterial.

    Just pouching four precious victory points, and in doing so denting the hopes of another strongly challenging outfit for a finals series berth, has become near-essential to the Stormers as they seek to correct the damage done by a pointless trip to the home of the unsung Cheetahs last weekend.

    This game marks the start of a four-game streak at Newlands (later opponents there are the Rebels, Cheetahs again and then Lions) and despite their nagging imperfections the Stormers should probably be fancied to win all or virtually all of them: in other words, their cash-in phase has begun.

    They will largely be excused a “win ugly” result against the very decent Brumbies, I am pretty sure, in what shapes as the trickiest fixture of the quartet on paper.

    And yet a good part of me suspects this match may also amount to a bit of a crossroads affair if they do crash to a second successive defeat and the outcome is aggravated by the double bogey – if I may temporarily nick a golfing expression – of another rather joyless, sterile approach from them.

    Remember that when Gert Smal arrived as director of rugby at the franchise during their ultimately ill-fated (11th overall) 2014 campaign, he made it clear that he not only sought better results, but a return to a brighter, more expressive playing style in line with the tradition of “Province rugby” at the hallowed old stadium.

    He would have noted that the Stormers, already very bedded down under the head-coaching stewardship of Allister Coetzee, had probably experienced their best season ever statistically just two years earlier, in 2012, when they topped the overall standings, only to be tripped up in a home semi-final by compatriots the Sharks.

    But that season was characterised by a pretty joyless method from them, in which they employed stubborn, massively industrious defence to eke out – as opposed to genuinely dominate – many of their triumphs.

    At the end of the day, they had only the soulless consolation of the conference honours to show for their labour.

    Towards the end of last season, and admittedly after the horse had to all intents and purposes bolted in playoffs terms, Smal’s elevation to power coincided with a noticeably less rigid and more risk-taking formula.

    Earlier this year, the Stormers began to show promising signs that they were gradually learning to merge their famed blanket-defence ethic (understandably not something they would wish to merely bin in cavalier fashion) with an ability to score easy-on-the-eye tries.

    But in the last month or so, following their commendable upset of the champion Waratahs with a bonus point in Sydney on April 11, it has almost seemed as if the team have retreated to conservative old ways; experienced a sense of paralysis.

    While it is true that the three games subsequently have still seen two wins, they had to cling on for dear life to stave off the moderate Western Force in Perth 13-6 (their only “dot-down” being a debatable penalty try) and did not bother the “tries for” column at all as they pipped the Bulls 15-13 despite marked pack dominance at Newlands.

    They did register two tries in Bloemfontein last Saturday, but there is a cynical case for saying they came about primarily because the fast and fluid Cheetahs had forced them into playing some rugby, as it were, after opening up an unexpectedly large 18-3 lead not long into the second quarter.

    By getting a mere three tries in as many matches, the Stormers have only slipped further down the charts in that regard: they now lie 12th on 20 tries from 11 games (average less than two per match) with just the Lions (18), Rebels and Reds (17 each) behind them.

    It is thus also no coincidence that the Capetonians are struggling – you will have heard this one before – in the far from unimportant bonus points column.

    Their tally is two (just one for getting four tries), which is now fewer than any other side in the competition. It could come around to hurt them if they are touch-and-go for the top six as ordinary season winds up.

    The Stormers look a competitive enough outfit at this stage, make no mistake, because they have specific areas of very significant strength in their ranks like a mercilessly front-foot scrum and the dead-eye place-kicking of Demetri Catrakilis (at least when he is actually on the park).

    But they need to exhibit a bit more – ideally in patience, efficiency and ability to breach the advantage line – if they are to assume a truly “championship prospect” look in the closing weeks of pre-knockout play.

    As I said earlier, it probably won’t matter if they triumph without special panache this weekend, against the two-time title-winning combo from Canberra.

    It’s if they “lose ugly” that I believe the broad-shouldered Mr Smal may start to pace up and down with increasing impatience, fearing his stated wishes upon appointment just over a year ago are being ignored ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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