CAPE TOWN – The Stormers’ 2018 Super Rugby season hasn’t been going well, that’s pretty clear. But in between the disappointments and the missed opportunities, pin-pointing exactly what they’re missing doesn’t seem to be as clear cut.
They’ve won just three of their eight games so far, and they’ve lost all five of their away games. So, with another away match on their schedule, I look at six things the Stormers need to get right to prevent another away-from-Newlands headache in Durban.
1 Get the set-piece right
If there is one of the Stormers’ possessions that can never be doubted, it’s the cards they have that form their set-piece deck. While the loss of the likes of Eben Etzebeth, JD Schickerling and Bongi Mbonambi to injury certainly has impacted the Cape side, the calibre of players they have up front is nothing short of superb. Their scrum hasn’t really been an issue this season ... in fact they’ve dominated most of their shoving battles in the ever-changing competition.
Their lineout has gone from near disastrous to a more functional unit, and while a fine performance at the set-piece is always important, it will crucial against the Sharks ... and the same can be said about what they do after securing the ball at the lineout or scrum.
2 Those final touches
We’ve seen it quite a few times ... they hold onto the ball, they gain metres and get all the way into the attack zone, only for a the ball to go loose or bounce into touch before it can reach the final pair of eagerly-awaiting hands. Or it happens anywhere else on the field after an impressive piece of attack has been strung together. It’s a forced pass here or an overdone offload there. Or the receiver just doesn’t get a grip on the Gilbert.
Point is, we’ve sometimes seen really good things when the Stormers have had ball in hand, even when the results didn’t exactly suggest it, but we’ve also seen butchered chances and not enough rhythm on attack.
3 Front up
I’ve never been very keen on elaborating on the importance of winning the forward battle or the notion that a game is won up front, mainly because I’m still trying to figure out if there’s such a thing as an unimportant aspect in rugby, or if it’s just an overused principle by rugby traditionalists trying to comfort their beloved single-digit warriors for all those times the backs have just “finished off” all their hard work (and gained the glory) by diving over the try line in flamboyant fashion.
Either way, and seriously, it will be important this week. The forwards will need to lay a platform. Also, the fans probably need something to erase the images of the Bulls forwards rampaging over the Stormers’ at Loftus.
4 Mix it up
I mentioned rhythm on attack earlier, but some variation and inventiveness will also add another dimension. The Stormers backline needs no introduction, and it’s one that oozes speed, guile and flair. And the forwards certainly don’t lack in the skills department either. But we need to see all those resources put to use in an unpredictable way. Playing with width has been one of the boxes the Stormers have been wanting to tick, and while have seen some of it, a bit more wouldn’t hurt.
More variation in attacks launched from set-piece. Attacking from different field positions. Fewer one-off runners when the going gets tough. Just keep the Sharks guessing.
5 Go for 80
Playing catch-up is never easy. And being way ahead only to take your foot off the pedal for whatever reason later in the game and become the one under pressure isn’t pleasant either ... or certainly not to watch. Against the Jaguares in their Super Rugby-opener the Stormers were well in command, only for the game to turn into a last-quarter huslte and come down to a monster scrum to secure the win and prevent an upset against the ill-disciplined Argentines. On tour not even a laudable second-half fightback could do enough to stop the Crusaders after they wreaked havoc in the opening 20.
Against the Reds, a good first half lost some of its glam due to a not-so-amazing second stanza. And that first half against the Lions also proved too much, although things looked slightly better in the second. Starting well and fading and starting poorly and chasing are both undesirable. But getting the first points and maintaining the pressure will be one of the most fitting keys to success this weekend.
6 Speed it up
Linespeed: an ever-growing topic of discussion in rugby circles, and one that can do wonders if it’s done right. Also one of the Kiwis’ much-feared weapons.
Yeah, it might have been a system mostly associated with New Zealand sides, but the Stormers have shown that they can get it right. And while it would be great to see, their defence - however quick or pressuring it may or may not be on Saturday - just needs to keep the Sharks’ try-tap sealed.