After starting their campaign with four wins in five games, why did the Stormers deviate from the plan?
Why did they revert to an attacking game that, in 2013 and 2014, downgraded perennial contenders to also-rans?
And why did nobody at Stormers headquarters foresee that such a plan would expose an undersized backline?
Only Allister Coetzee and his management team can answer these questions, but structured attack played such a small part in the Stormers’ 32-18 win against the defending champions that the coach didn’t even mention it in the aftermath.
“Our kicking game was excellent, we had a huge defensive performance on our side and, on top of that, we capitalised by utilising turnover possession and scoring four tries,” said Coetzee.
Three of those four tries came from defence, with Waratahs errors sparking two tries for Damian de Allende and one for fullback Cheslin Kolbe. Winger Kobus van Wyk’s length-of-the-field score was the result of a kicking play launched from a set piece in the Stormers 22.
“We had our balance spot on in the way we want to play, and I said last week that we were heading in the right direction,” added Coetzee.
In reality, the Stormers took a three-week detour that cost them losses against the Highlanders and the Hurricanes.
In those two matches, Coetzee’s team averaged 13 kicks, 78 tackles, 158 runs and 20 offloads per game as they attempted to shoot down physically bigger Kiwi opponents with an attacking game writing cheques that their diminutive backs couldn’t cash. In the first five games, the fast-starters in the SA Conference had averaged 24 kicks, 92 runs, 88 tackles and six offloads per game.
The Stormers’ first win in Sydney since 2007 was set up by a stats-line that included 24 kicks, a season-low 69 runs, 126 tackles (second-highest total of the season) and six offloads.
That means that they almost doubled their kicks, cut their running game in half, and reduced their offloads by two thirds... and won.
The tactical shift brought the mini-backs into play, with a turnover allowing Kolbe to leverage his superior acceleration and top speed to burst away from a chugging Taqele Naiyaravoro, as opposed to running in an attack on the giant Fijian winger who would have had a 55kg weight advantage in contact.
“We had it spot on in terms of tactics,” Coetzee said “We put them under pressure and forced them into mistakes – our plan was right. We’re learning lessons” the Stormers coach said repeatedly during the team’s recent three-game slump. But how does Coetzee justify having to re-learn the consequences of an attacking game that subjected Cape rugby fans to successive failed campaigns in 2013 and 2014?
Clearly the key points from those diabolical campaigns were not learnt – if they were, Coetzee would never have green-lighted the high-octane blueprints prior to the losses against the Highlanders and Hurricanes.
And have those lessons now really been learnt, or should Stormers fans expect their team to again spurn kicking and defence against the Western Force in Perth this week? The Stormers will go into that match without their first-choice back row, with captain Duane Vermeulen on Springbok rest duty, enforcer Rynhardt Elstadt out with a season-ending broken leg and blindside flanker Michael Rhodes expected to be on his way home with what Coetzee hinted was a tour-ending hamstring injury.
The Cheetahs snapped a five-game losing streak when they beat the Force in Perth on Saturday. It’s no coincidence that the free-flowing Free Staters’ first taste of victory in almost two months came after a performance which featured less than 75 runs, nearly 30 kicks out of hand, almost 175 tackles and just five offloads.
As far as the professional game goes, it’s Rugby 101. Let’s hope the Stormers have learnt that lesson for the last time.
Original source: Stormers got it ‘spot on’