Kolbe, the Stormers’ driving Force


A game that celebrates evasive running skills and flair in a whirlwind of try-scoring athleticism is how Australia, more than the other Sanzar partners, tries to sell rugby.

Michael Foley isn’t buying it, or at least he can’t afford to. The Force coach is working with a team of no-namers.

Unlike the Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies, who have Test-calibre playmakers in Israel Folau, Quade Cooper and Christian Lealiifano, Foley’s most notable back, Nick “The Honey Badger” Cummins, is renowned for what he does outside the four white lines.

Tight forwards are not characteristically credited with intelligence, but Foley, a former Wallaby hooker, is smart enough to know that his troops would get blown to pieces in a try-scoring shootout.

The Force don’t have a realistic chance of beating any of their rivals, as proven by a 1-7 record. What little hope they do have lies in playing a waiting game.

In something akin to a line-and-length bowler in cricket, who keeps pitching the ball outside off-stump in the hope of boring the batsman into playing a false stroke, Foley’s plan is to frustrate opponents into conceding penalties, and to bait them into a high-risk return game.

Foley’s methodology involves playing almost no rugby on the wrong side of halfway. Only one team has put boot to ball with more frequency than the Force this season as the likes of flyhalf Sias Ebersohn has committed to kicking most of the ball received in his own half long and in-field, driving the defending back three deep and daring them to roll the dice.

Teams that take the bait and counter-attack are inevitably isolated by an organised chase-line, and concede a penalty at the ensuing breakdown, where Force forwards such as Steve Mafi and Chris Alcock are zealous disruptors.

Teams that do not launch from kick-receipt, but instead return fire into touch, suddenly find themselves tackling No 8 Ben McCalman and centre Kyle Godwin, who spearhead a conservative, one-pass attack aimed more at coaxing penalties out of ill-disciplined defenders rather than breaking the line.

In both instances, the Force convert those penalties into points or field position. Mafi and lock Sam Wykes feature in Super Rugby’s most prodigious lineout, and this precedes a direct, ball-hogging ground game that ranks eighth for passes despite averaging a league-high 120 carries per game.

The essence of this plan is what helped the Force to a season-opening win against the Waratahs in Sydney, and the Stormers followed suit at the same venue last week to snap a three-game slump with a 32-18 win against the cavalier defending champions.

In anticipation of a team that subscribes to the Stormers’ tactics, Allister Coetzee used the word “patience” to perfectly describe the challenge of quelling the Force.

“The Waratahs kept ball in hand and took it through multiple phases, and our defence was able to turn them over and create try-scoring opportunities,” said the Stormers coach.

“The big difference this week against the Force is that we won’t be able to feed off turnovers because we won’t be making so many tackles. We will get most of the ball kicked deeply back to us, and our back three will have to be smart, make the right decisions, and have a bit of patience.

“We have to make smart decisions at the back - when to run, which balls to counter from and which ones to look for territory, and have patience.

“The biggest thing for me is discipline and not giving away soft penalties, which will enable a kicking side like the Force to get territory.”

The implications of this tactical composure will tee Kolbe up with an ideal opportunity to put the Stormers on his back and carry them to victory.

Arguably South Africa’s most dynamic open-field runner in the history of Super Rugby, the 21-year-old fullback’s tactical maturity is seldom spoken about.

Celebrated attacking players, such as Sharks fullback SP Marais, are too much like the action-hero John Rambo - they cannot resist the surge of adrenaline that comes from charging, unaided, at a swarming army of tacklers.

A red headband and survival knife won’t be found anywhere in Kolbe’s luggage. Far from impulsive, his game-breaking agility does not define him, it is merely one of several explosive-tipped arrows in his quiver.

It is his tactical discretion that gives some credence to calls for the selection of a 70-kilogram No 15 to the Springboks. Despite his ability to disappear from sight with a single side-step, Kolbe shows no discernable preference for beating his opponent with the ball clasped firmly between his hands or arcing it into touch from a deft kick.

Kolbe’s track record suggests that Foley’s ploy will be as effective as dangling a carrot in front of a fox, and Coetzee has every reason to believe that Kolbe will manoeuvre with the cunning and composure of a seasoned veteran.

Foley might not be able to say the same of Dane Haylett-Petty. The Force’s Durban-born fullback may well start to get fidgety if Kolbe plays it cool for 60 minutes, and Stormers skipper Juan de Jongh utilises goal-kicking ace Demetri Catrakilis to keep the scoreboard ticking over.

The Stormers return-man won’t need a second invitation to fire up the afterburners. If his opposite number wanders off plan, Kolbe will go full throttle and the Stormers will jet home on a two-game hot streak.

Weekend Argus

Original source: Kolbe, the Stormers' driving Force