The Stormers need to lighten up. Not crack more jokes, but lighten up in terms of how they approach a rugby game. The current team are besieged by a defensive mindset, as opposed to teams like the Chiefs, the Crusaders, the Sharks and the Reds, who play with a positive mindset.
A defensive mindset is when Louis Schreuder kicks the ball away with two minutes left of a semi-final when he has a three-man overlap around his own 10-metre line despite the Stormers having built up great momentum through a multi-phase attack.
It’s when captain Jean de Villiers, in a press conference before the Sharks semi-final, says in a throwaway line “And we don’t need to score four tries!”. It’s when Dewaldt Duvenage kicks those little chips from inside the opposition’s half into their 22. It’s when coach Allister Coetzee sarcastically says “I thought we were a boring side!”.
A positive mindset does not mean indiscriminately running the ball from your own tryline. It does not mean neglecting defence or a kicking game. The Chiefs, for example, have improved their defensive systems out of sight this season and added some bite to their pack. But they are still capable of scoring great tries, because they have a positive mindset.
A positive mindset is about imposing your game on the opposition. Another example is the Bulls under Victor Matfield between 2007 and 2010. The Bulls still used their pack to gain dominance, Morné Steyn kicked everything over and they had a strong defence. But they were far from a one-dimensional team. They were able to win by scoring tries and taking control of games.
With the Stormers, the buzzwords are “build an innings”, “play in their half” or “play for territory”, “stay in the systems and structures”, “stick to the plan”. The Stormers have basically perfected defence – being the team with the best defensive record in three years of Super Rugby proves that. Now they need to make their attacking game their No 1 focus. Defence can only take you so far.
Also, sometimes you have to deviate from the plan if it’s not working, and the Stormers did it too late on Saturday night. They waited until 20 minutes before the end to throw the restrictive gameplan out of the window and just trust their instincts and take on the Sharks for a change. And if the game had gone on for another two or three minutes, the Stormers would probably have won and hosted a home final.
Compare De Villiers, Juan de Jongh, Bryan Habana, Gio Aplon and Joe Pietersen to Tim Whitehead, JP Pietersen, Lwazi Mvovo, Louis Ludik and Riaan Viljoen. Who would you pick out of the two groups? The way the Stormers play rugby doesn’t appear to be natural to a lot of the players in the team. Backline coach Robbie Fleck has often used the line “We’ve played to a certain pattern this year, and it has got us to where we are.” Fleck is under fire for the team’s inability to score tries, but knowing what he was like as a player, can he really be happy as a coach with the conservative gameplan?
The Stormers have had a terrible run with injuries this year. Losing your entire first-choice loose trio of Schalk Burger, Nick Koster and Duane Vermeulen, and then talented youngster Nizaam Carr to injury for large parts of the season, but especially for the semi-final, was tough to overcome.
Allister Coetzee has done great work to lead the Stormers to three successive home semi-finals in Super Rugby, as well as a final berth in 2010 and two consecutive SA conference trophies. But he needs to change his team’s defensive mindset if the Stormers are to take the next step up and win their first ever Super Rugby title in 2013.