Cape Town - Remember the days when Kobus van der Merwe was still Stormers coach?
In 2006 and 2007, the Stormers ended in 11th and then 10th in consecutive seasons in the then-Super 14 under Van der Merwe’s watch.
Under Allister Coetzee since 2010, the Stormers were losing finalists and then losing semi-finalists for two years. But in 2013 and 2014, they ended seventh and 11th.
It is unacceptable for a team like the Stormers to not at least make the playoffs for two consecutive years. So we took a look at what they need to do to avoid missing out again in 2015.
1. Investigate injury crisis
It was staggering to hear Allister Coetzee admit that he doesn’t know why there have been so many injuries at the Stormers in the last few years.
How can that be? It is an unavoidable fact that none of the other South African franchises (or even those in Australia and New Zealand) have had an injury list that could rival that of the Stormers, who have had more than an entire team of players out.
Coetzee speaks about how he manages senior players like Duane Vermeulen, Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger by reducing their training times so that they can be ready for matches at the weekend. The coach has also been adamant that it is not due to the confrontational style of play, with a heavy emphasis on defence, that has resulted in the long injury list.
But managing players’ training schedules may have come too late, as Vermeulen missed out on the 2011 and 2012 Newlands semi-finals, while the injury bogey struck De Villiers recently too.
Of course, Burger sustained a serious knee injury first in 2012. Only after his recovery from that problem did he then suffer a calf injury that eventually led to the mysterious cyst in his back, and unfortunately meningitis. Even upon his return to the game this year, Burger has missed a few games due to calf “niggles”.
Also, just sitting out training is not enough. The mental and physical exhaustion from matches should not be ignored, and key players like Vermeulen need to get away from it all now and again too.
Coetzee and director of rugby Gert Smal need to make it a priority to get to the bottom of the injury problems. Smal and president Thelo Wakefield have taken a bold step forward already by promoting Dr Jason Suter from the WP Under-21 and Vodacom Cup teams to the head of the medical department of the Stormers and WP senior sides in place of Dr Arthur Williams, who basically swaps roles with Suter.
Or is it just simply unbelievably bad luck on the Stormers’ side?
2. Buy an experienced top-class scrumhalf
While it is believed that the Stormers brainstrust are searching for an additional hooker, prop, flyhalf and wing for next year, a hardened, experienced scrumhalf should be at the top of their recruitment list.
Nic Groom has taken big steps forward in his development in 2014. His service from the base has improved, his box kicks are a bit better and he seems to be backing himself more regularly on the break around the fringes. His defence is exceptional, while he is especially good at taking those unexpected tap kicks that catch the opposition off-guard.
But his decision-making in particular still needs a lot of work. Groom would get into good positions on attack, but then put in a grubber when he should’ve passed, or passed when he should’ve kicked or ran himself.
He also sometimes makes sloppy errors at the back of the scrum, like we saw in the last game against the Sharks where Charl McLeod hassled him, which led to Groom kicking the ball wide of Kurt Coleman and the Sharks scored.
Hopefully time will help Groom iron out those issues, as he has the talent to make it to the top. But the Stormers don’t have the time. Groom needs to be a commanding presence and threat to the opposition, like Aaron Smith is for the Highlanders.
Louis Schreuder was a surprise inclusion in the Springbok touring squad to Europe last November, but his broken thumb put him out for three months this season. He needs to find his game again and add speed to his service and big kicking boot.
There has been talk of the Stormers being in the market for Jano Vermaak, but the former Bull has just signed a contract extension with French club Toulouse and may be too expensive for the Cape side. But if you want the best, you need to cough up.
3. Prepare players for Super Rugby in Currie Cup
In terms of selection, the Currie Cup needs to be the platform laid for the following Super Rugby season as that ensures continuity, which makes it much easier for a team to grow and improve.
But while that may seem obvious, there have been many cases where players who featured strongly for WP in the Currie Cup are then ignored or sidelined when it comes to the Stormers.
This year Kurt Coleman had to wait until after the second bye of the season, following the defeat to the Waratahs at Newlands, to get a chance to play, and he’s made a considerable impact since.
Why wasn’t he picked from the start of the season? Instead, Coetzee stuck with Peter Grant and Demetri Catrakilis, without success.
Coleman had started in most of Province’s Currie Cup games last year, performing well until he was controversially replaced by Catrakilis in the last four matches.
And a similar thing happened to Catrakilis in the year before. He was the WP Currie Cup hero in the 2012 final in Durban, but then left to play for the Southern Kings as Grant and Elton Jantjies were the men entrusted with the No 10 jersey.
Likewise, consistent performers such as Michael Rhodes, Nizaam Carr and Pat Cilliers should be rewarded with regular gametime instead of having to make way for “bigger names” who are picked on past reputations.
4. Stick to the gameplan from the Currie Cup
While the Currie Cup doesn’t have the top Springboks in it until the semi-final and final (and they may not feature at all this year), it doesn’t help that you play a certain way for an entire competition and then change it for the next one.
Province made great strides with their attack in last year’s Currie Cup, bringing a refreshing element of surprise and creativity to their repertoire.
That took them all the way to an unbeaten run to the final, but a clever chip-kick strategy, the physicality of Pieter-Steph du Toit, the boot of Pat Lambie and two tries from Charl McLeod saw the Sharks ambush WP in a Newlands final.
That performance and result may have had a major effect on Coetzee, as he then tried to pull back the attacking game a bit for the Stormers’ 2014 campaign. The result was them falling in-between the two, while the selection of unsuitable players for an attacking gameplan was also a factor.
So, with a number of exciting new faces such as Seabelo Senatla and Dillyn Leyds, as well as several top players returning from injury in the next few weeks and months, Coetzee should continue on the new, more positive path suggested by Gert Smal and carry that on wholeheartedly into next year’s Super Rugby competition.
5. Extra distance on line kicks
Kurt Coleman himself told the Cape Times recently that he wants to improve his tactical kicking, and getting more distance needs to be a big part of that development. And the appointment of Vlok Cilliers as the new kicking coach comes at just the right time.
While his goal-kicking has been much better than in previous years, Coleman needs to push his radar from between 30-40 metres to 50m. For example, if he gets a penalty on his own 10m line, he needs to kick that ball out on the opposition’s 22m, not their 10m. That would put his team in the “red zone” on attack.
At least Coleman almost always finds his touch.
But it isn’t just Coleman who needs help from Cilliers. While Jaco Taute has done well under the high ball, his kicking has not been the best that he can produce. Not only is Taute struggling with distance, but his kicks tend to just go straight down the field instead of finding space or rolling into touch.
Nic Groom’s tactical kicking has been much better in recent months, but he needs to work on his grubber and when to use it, while he could also get a bit more distance at times.
And while Louis Schreuder has a big kicking boot, his execution is seldom on the mark, especially with his box kicks and also his decision-making - when to kick and whether it should be a deep one or contestable.
Demetri Catrakilis is a fine kicker of the ball to posts and tactically, but he lacks a bit of distance, and is sometimes over-reliant on his boot.
But if ever there is someone who can sort out these issues, it is Cilliers, who turned Morné Steyn from a running flyhalf who struggled with his kicking to one of the premier sharp-shooters in the world.