Allister Coetzee is one of my favourite people in rugby. I especially admire his dignity under pressure, and it is clear why the Stormers players have such affection for “Toetie.” His career as one of the great Saru scrumhalves only adds to the man’s stature.
But there is no room for sentiment in sport, and the fact that the Stormers are flapping about in the backwaters of the Super Rugby log is going to put a lot of heat on Coetzee. The coach has to be the man with the plan. That is just the way sport works.
And in Sydney, the Stormers looked like a team with basically one plan: Defend and force penalties. Even in the first 30 minutes, when they were just about camping in the Waratahs half, not once did they look like a team who could score tries. Even worse, they never looked like a team who had any ambition to score tries.
Other than their mauling, they seemed to be at a loss at what to do with the ball in their hands. There was no creative strategy from attacking set pieces, other than the usual one-off runners or pods taking the ball up. That is of course when they did not lose the ball in contact or spill their passes.
There were some other particularly depressing moments. Like Dewaldt Duvenage aimlessly kicking away a good ruck ball straight into touch, and a very strange move where Joe Pietersen came up on the blindside from a scrum, took Duvenage’s pass and grubbered into touch. It prompted a low growl from Phil Kearns: “What was the point of that?” Beats me too, Phil.
The Tahs were not that great either, but at least they tried to play the game. At least they mixed up their options, at least they made intelligent use of space, at least they tried to involve a gamebreaker like Israel Folau as much as possible. At least they valued the rugby ball, instead of fearing it. In other words, at least they had ambition. And that’s why they deserved to win the game.
A team plays like a team trains. And game strategy comes from the coach. Which is where Allister comes in. You just get the feeling the Stormers are a team who are coached to be scared to try things, scared to be creative and expressive. A team who are much more comfortable giving their opponents the ball and feeding off their mistakes.Yet the challenge of coaching these days is to precisely to devise a way to prise open the tight defences that dominate modern rugby. Otherwise it remains a chess game of basher against basher.
This lack of amibition has haunted the Stormers for years now. Yes, Allister has taken the team to two semi-finals and a final in three years. But in 10 or 20 years time, who will remember or care who topped the Super Rugby log in 2012? All that matters is who won the title.
The negative mindset of the Stormers often comes out in their pre-match comments as well. So often they will talk about how dangerous the Blues are with ball-in-hand, or how you have to stop the Chiefs playmakers by smothering the life out of them. Instead of being confident in their own abilities, they talk up the opposition.
At the risk of sounding like a stuck Blu-Ray player, strong defence and strong set pieces will always be two of rugby’s bedrocks. But defence will only take you so far, especially in Super Rugby. There are just too many creative teams and too many creative coaches in the competition. And five will always be more than three in English, Spanish or gobbledygook. Which is why 17 Stormers tries in 10 matches is such a depressing statistic.
Being creative, daring and entertaining does not exclude the basics of rugby. You can actually entertain and win. You can make people smile and win. Boring does not equal winning, just like entertaining does not equal losing. Just page through the golden annals of sport,for a few seconds and you will see what I am getting at.
In the end, it is up to Allister to free his team from the chains of fear they seem to have had strapped around their ankles for the last few years now.
After the Waratahs match, Allister again lauded his players for their commitment and their brave defence. “Defensively we were outstanding and our set-piece functioned well,” he said.
But we know the Stormers are brave, Allister. We know they tackle like brave men. I just wonder when will they attack like brave men?
w Ian Smit is the sports editor of the Cape Times and a former rugby writer of the paper.
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