CAPE TOWN – They have a New Zealand coach in their midst, are playing like a New Zealand team, and Robbie Fleck even said that they want to score more tries than the Chiefs!
But, are the revitalised Stormers the real deal? We will find out at 5.15pm on Saturday when the two-time champion Chiefs of Waikato run out at Newlands.
The problem with getting too excited about the Stormers is that we’ve all seen this movie before.
Many times during the Allister Coetzee reign, there were promises of embracing a more attacking style of play, and on some occasions, we saw glimpses of a brave new world as the Stormers scored a number of excellent tries.
But you always knew that when the going got tough, the Stormers would creep back into Coetzee’s proverbial shell and adopt safety-first tactics, which inevitably ended in tears in the playoffs.
Fleck began the process of reinventing the Cape side last year, although he was always playing catch-up once Eddie Jones decided to earn pounds rather than rands after two weeks in the Mother City.
The Stormers never quite got to grips with Fleck’s vision in 2016, and it ended in the disastrous 60-21 thrashing at the hands of the Chiefs in the Newlands quarter-final.
But you cannot deny that there has been a conscious effort to do things differently in 2017. The biggest change in the Stormers’ make-up is their relentless pursuit of trying to keep the ball alive.
That is a strong New Zealand trait, and Fleck has said that Kiwi skills guru Paul Feeney has drilled the players in the art of repetition to instil confidence in offloading in the tackle or off the ground.
In the past, the Stormers have looked to slow things down, engage teams in physical confrontation, and avoid as much risk as possible. They largely played from set-piece to set-piece, and only really tried to use their backs in broken play. Other than that, it was about milking penalties and kicking goals to put the points on the board.
Coetzee often rolled out the tired “three-six-nine” mantra in trying to explain how important it was to “build an innings” by scoring three points at a time.
That has thankfully been done away with under the Fleck regime in 2017, with the approach rather being one of wanting to score tries and putting the opposition under pressure with ball-in-hand.
And an eye-catching tally of 29 touchdowns in five matches is proof of that.
Players such as Dillyn Leyds, SP Marais and Cheslin Kolbe have total licence to run amok, while Robert du Preez has looked to bring his centres into play, which has seen EW Viljoen excel at No 13.
Even the forwards are encouraged to run into space and look for a teammate instead of seek contact, and we’ve seen props such as JC Janse van Rensburg passing the ball off the ground too.
The scrums and lineouts have been solid as well, while the goal-kicking and option-taking by the halfbacks have been sharp.
But two problematic issues mean that there are still doubts about the Stormers’ abilities to go toe-to-toe with the Chiefs on Saturday – their defence, and the opposition they’ve faced so far.
The opening-round 37-24 win over the Bulls at Newlands was a good start, but having seen the struggles of the three-time champions since, it puts that victory into perspective.
The Stormers very nearly slipped up against the Jaguares at home the following week, and that was the Argentinian side’s only defeat this season.
Then came the easy win over the Kings, a bye, and the come-from-behind triumph over the Sunwolves in Singapore before the 50-pointer against the Cheetahs last weekend.
So, while it isn’t the Stormers’ fault, they haven’t really been tested this season. It was the same scenario last year, and we know what happened when they eventually faced a top team…
What’s more worrisome is their defence. There was a vast improvement against the Cheetahs last week, but considering the standard of the opposition thus far, to concede 13 tries in five matches is far from ideal.
In contrast, the unbeaten Chiefs have given away just six tries, and these are the teams they’ve faced – the Highlanders, Blues, Hurricanes, Rebels (away) and the Bulls.
So, the Stormers may provide a stiffer attacking test for the Chiefs, but the men from Hamilton appear to have that part of their game sorted.
The fact that All Black openside flank Sam Cane is out injured definitely helps the Cape side, but Liam Messam, Michael Leitch, Brodie Retallick and Dominic Bird are still around to contest the breakdowns and lineouts.
The youthful exuberance provided by the likes of Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Cobus Wiese, Dan du Plessis and Wilco Louw is vital to keep up with the pace of the Chiefs, but at the moment, the Kiwis just look to have too much firepower.
A victory on Saturday would be first prize for the Stormers and take expectations to another level, but just being more competitive and not becoming overwhelmed would be a step forward for Siya Kolisi and his team.
If they continue their upward curve, they may get another shot at the Chiefs later on in the tournament.