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    Stormers turning back the clock defensively

    2019-03-20 15:08
    Sharks v Stormers
    The Stormers for the better of the Sharks in Durban earlier this month... (Gallo Images)

    Gavin Rich - SuperSport

    Cape Town - You wouldn't exactly say it is a return to their DNA, for there are many in the Cape who would bulk at the thought that the Stormers or Western Province DNA is anything other than ball in hand attacking rugby.

    But, according to SuperSport.com, the first stages of the current Super Rugby season have produced a noticeable lift in the Stormers' defensive effort, at least since the opening defeat to the Bulls, and defence coach Norman Laker confirmed from New Zealand this week that there has been a conscious effort to return to ingredients that made the Stormers so competitive between 2010 and 2012.

    Back then the Stormers relied heavily on a combative, physical defensive effort to win games. They consistently topped the defence stats in Super Rugby.

    Subsequent to those years, particularly post the departure of defence guru Jacques Nienaber, who is now working with Rassie Erasmus at the Springboks, the Stormers have moved away from their former strength, partially because of a conscious effort to become more attack-orientated.

    The first year after the departure of Nienaber in 2014 the Stormers managed to hold onto some of the tenets of their strong defensive culture, perhaps chiefly because they still had the services then of Nienaber disciple Duane Vermeulen. The big No 8, together with Schalk Burger, took on a leading role looking after the defence.

    Paul Treu was by then involved with the Stormers but performed only an observer role that year. His first foray as chief defence coach was in the 2016 Super Rugby season, when the Stormers coped well defensively and topped their conference. But it was also a year where they played only local and Australian opposition until the quarter-final, when they took 60 points in an hour from the Chiefs in their first match-up with New Zealand opposition.

    The 2017 campaign was disastrous from a defensive viewpoint, with big scores being clocked up against the Stormers in New Zealand, and it was clear then that what used to be a strength had become a weakness. And last year was pretty disastrous defensively too - think about the first half of the game against the Crusaders and the whole game in Johannesburg against the Lions.

    Of course the Stormers management didn't help themselves with the way they deployed their personnel. It is 13 months on from when we first heard that Treu and Paul Feeney were going to share the attack and defensive roles specific to particular phases of play and frankly it still doesn't make any sense.

    The defensive frailties of 2018 did at least though precipitate some action, with WP defence coach Laker drafted into the role that he specialises in and his impact has become immediately apparent. There were some defensive errors in the 40-3 Loftus loss to the Bulls, but there was a noticeable step up the following weekend, when had it not been for the Stormers' defence they could have been out of the game against the Lions by half-time.

    They did trail 14-6 at the halfway point of that game but since then the Stormers have played five halves of rugby, meaning 200 minutes, with only two tries being conceded in that time.

    "It has gone well, and I am pleased with how it has gone, but there is still lots of room for improvement," said Laker from Wellington, where the Stormers are preparing for their opening tour game against the Hurricanes.

    What has been most noticeable about the Stormers defensive game in the early parts of the season is how physical it has become. The games against the Sharks and the Jaguares, where the Stormers suffocated their opponents, were almost a throwback to the years of Nienaber, though of course the line-speed component that has been introduced to rugby in the last few years does make comparison difficult. The systems are completely different.

    The Stormers now face an acid test. They are in New Zealand, a place where they have conceded a lot of tries in the last few years, and it was understandable that Laker should face questions about what was learned then and what had been done to ensure there isn't a repeat.

    "This is my first year with the Stormers and I wasn't involved with everything that has happened in the past so I can't really comment on that," said the defence coach.

    "For us it is just important to improve every single game and every single week, and I feel we are doing that. We did let the physicality go a bit over the past few years, and we are trying to implement that again and bring it back at the Stormers. The guys are working really hard and as a unit everyone has brought into the plan."

    With Beauden Barrett likely to line up against them in what is expected to be the Hurricanes' strongest team, there can't be a better test for the Stormers' progress back towards embracing their previous strength as part of their package.

    They won't just become a defence-orientated team like they were in the past, that is something the coaches will assure you, but the step up in the physicality and abrasiveness of the Stormers defence, allied as it has been in recent weeks to a strong forward effort, should inspire confidence that they could become real contenders again.

    Saturday will tell us more (kick-off 08:35 SA time).

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