The Stormers launched their 2015 Super Rugby campaign with a gameplan that put them in pole position. And then they veered off course.
The reason for changing a plan that was working remains a mystery, but the consequences are obvious – the Stormers are mired in a three-game slump and have plummeted from first to ninth place after the 25-20 loss against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday.
Allister Coetzee yanked the steering wheel after a 28-19 defeat to the Chiefs at Newlands in round five. Admittedly, the Stormers coach had to take corrective action after a poor performance, but the course he chose has sent the Stormers off the highway to Titletown and down the exit to Loserville.
The Stormers have made more runs in three successive losses against the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes combined (402) than they did during the preceding four-game win-streak against the Bulls, Blues, Lions and Sharks (376). They put boot to ball almost 100 times in the first four games, including 30 kicks in a 29-13 win against the Sharks in Cape Town.
Coetzee’s team has since completed just 43 kicks, combined, in three straight losses. To the casual fan, this may seem counter-intuitive. Surely the team that refuses to kick the ball away, and plays all the rugby, wins?
While this is true at some levels of amateur rugby, it is false at most levels of the professional game. During the first seven rounds, the side that ran more and kicked less than their opponents in each match, won eight of 47 matches.
The Chiefs produced one of those eight exceptions at Newlands, as they asserted their physical supremacy on an undersized Stormers backline.
It was after this game that Coetzee erred in connecting the dots. Having seen diminutive fullback Cheslin Kolbe, among others, cast aside in the scoring of one of the Chiefs tries, he ostensibly came to the conclusion that a good way to shield his small backline from defence was to keep the ball on attack.
At face value, it makes sense. On closer inspection, it’s a sure-fire way to burn a small backline.
Kolbe featured in a superstar role, along with wingers Seabelo Senatla and Kobus van Wyk as Western Province scored 40 tries en route to clinching last year’s Currie Cup trophy. Roughly half of those tries were a direct result of unstructured attack – from turnovers, quick-taps, counter-attacks or contesting kicks.
For Province, the hallmark of that campaign was turning defence into attack. Super Rugby is a significantly tougher competition and the margin for error is much smaller, but those same tactics are just as relevant and effective as they were in South Africa’s domestic championship.
What Coetzee may have failed to factor in after the loss against the Chiefs is the fortitude required to sustain an attack. As the Stormers have shown during the slump, they battle to consolidate possession out wide with mini-backs who are rag-dolled by bigger opponents at the point of contact.
This is the reason scrumhalf Nic Groom clears the ball from every ruck like a tidal wave about to break on him – the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes were all able to wreak havoc on the Stormers at the tackle point by committing one or two rugged contesters.
Gio Aplon built a legacy during a decade of rugby that ended in Cape Town last year, and he never weighed more than 80 kilograms.
The difference was that, when Aplon was carving the line at his best in 2010 and 2011, he was supported by big-bodied backs such as Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Peter Grant, Sireli Naqelevuki and Danie Poolman, while stocky halfback Ricky Januarie stood back for nobody.
Coetzee’s current first-choice unit has two players who weigh more than 90kg. Kolbe, Groom, Demetri Catrakilis, Dillyn Leyds and Juan de Jongh are all talented and committed, but none of them have the size or strength to stand their ground against 100kg opponents at the point of contact.
In an attack-heavy plan, this puts pressure on the pack to scramble to every tackle in close support. It is a task that is unsustainable, and one which fed the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes with a surfeit of opportunities to counter-strike from turn-overs and errors.
A return to a high-volume kicking game won’t exempt the likes of Kolbe from having to tackle. What it will do is allow the Stormers to dictate the terms of those tackle situations.
More importantly, it will keep the contest in enemy territory and put the Stormers in a position to raid and spoil the breakdown, with Kolbe, De Jongh and Leyds revving their engines out wide, ready to quick-shift whenever the defence poaches a turnover.
Stormers captain Duane Vermeulen returns to Cape Town today for a two-week rest as part of the agreed SA Rugby rest period. – Weekend Argus