CAPE TOWN – The Stormers have two games left - against the Jaguares and the Sharks - to end their 2018 Super Rugby campaign on a high after one too many lows this season. They’ve won just five of their 14 games, while they haven’t managed a single celebration away.
With their playoff hopes dead and buried, I look at six big areas and rate the Stormers’ performance in each of them.
1. Could they afford to play expansively?
Playing a more expansive game was one of their biggest goals ahead of the season. But that priority wasn’t always so telling. In the first half of Super Rugby, especially, they didn’t play with a lot of width, and their plan on attack wasn’t always evident. There was also some predictability when the Stormers had ball in hand, and sometimes they substituted that approach completely for one-off runners and desperately tighter play. And shutting all of that X-factor and flair out by keeping things up front is a waste, no matter how tough things get on the pitch.
Getting an expansive style right more consistently should continue to be a goal for Robbie Fleck and his crew. It’s a game they can play, and we’ve seen it a few times this season, but there certainly has to be more of that and they should stick to their game, it’s the only way it’ll grow. And as it grows, maybe we’ll see fewer mistakes and missed opportunities.
Think about that Stormers vs Lions kind of attack, where the hosts looked sharp with ball in hand, varied their play and also put in an admirable shift in the physical department. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, it doesn’t have to be between superb attack and masterful physicality or beautiful flair and set-piece dominace ... you can ace all of that in one game, in one style. And that should continue to be their goal.
2. How were their cards on the deck?
The breakdown will always be one of rugby’s most important battles, and it’s also an area Fleck highlighted during pre-season. Have they always got it right this year? No. They were put under pressure there earlier this year against the Lions at Ellis Park and the Bulls at Loftus, for example.
But they’ve also done well on the ground. Of course speed to the ruck and the ensuing contest can still be improved but the Stormers know where they’ve gone wrong in that regard, and that’s the first step to improvement in a already-decent display.
3. Was their X-factor given the red or green light?
It was absolutely wonderful to see Damian Willemse’s attacking finesse, Dillyn Leyds’ knack for humiliating opposition defences, especially on the counter-attack, those fine moments by Seabelo Senatla, JJ Engelbrecht’s strong and nifty running and every other offload, chip kick and inside pass that had the Faithful on their feet.
But did they get enough chances to showcase all that X-factor? For the most part, yes.
But it also, at times, looked like that freedom was lacking and that the flow of flair was somewhat hindered, be that due to mistakes or a bit of a more conservative, or "safer", approach at times.
4. Enough drive in the engine room?
Well, let’s just say that it’s a good thing that the Stormers forwards’ performances didn’t all look like the one they produced against the Bulls at Loftus. There were some fine outings by their forwards early in the season, and guys like JD Schickerling and Cobus Wiese shined, while Pieter-Steph du Toit has been a star throughout the season. As a unit, they have done well, but it’s been nowhere near close to the powerful displays a pack like the Stormers’ can dish up, or not consistently enough, rather.
For the most part the Stormers forwards have been doing their job, but if a pack like that decides to move up a gear, then the power, pace, skill and pure talent the Stormers’ No 1 to 8 jerseys have seen can definitely thump most opponents.
5. Set-piece a well-oiled machine?
The Stormers’ scrum has been their strength even when other areas have disappointed. One of their unquestionable origins of power, the likes of Wilco Louw, Steven Kitshoff and JC Janse van Rensburg have made sure that there was one constant in an otherwise patchy series of productions this year.
Their lineout, on the other hand, has gone from a sequence of horrors to a better-functioning unit, and over the last few weeks they’ve actually done really well whenever they’ve lined up.
Rating: 8 (mostly for that scrummaging)
6 Enough speed off the line?
Line speed was another box the Stormers wanted to tick, and they did. They were perhaps not given enough credit for their defensive productions this year. And while it wasn’t always a Hurricanes-like blitz off the line, the fact that they did well to put pressure on the opposition with urgency and big hits was sometimes enough.
Yeah, there were too many missed tackles by individuals in certain games and sometimes they’ve been caught napping, but in terms of defence there’s been more good than bad. A lot more good.