Storm­ers need to work on build­ing a plat­form they can use to launch at­tacks from the backs

Satur­day Comment

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - GAVIN RICH

N EARLY 2010 I went out to Stel­len­bosch to do a se­ries of in­ter­views for a mag­a­zine fea­ture on the Western Prov­ince Rugby In­sti­tute. Only sub­se­quent to that day was it pointed out by the In­sti­tute’s Jac­ques Hanekom that Frans Mal­herbe was one of the play­ers I in­ter­viewed.

It didn’t mean any­thing to me then as Mal­herbe was just one of the promis­ing 18-year-olds that had been re­cruited to WP from the pre­vi­ous year’s Craven Week.

But it means some­thing now as it is hard to be­lieve that was just three years ago.

Mal­herbe has played three sea­sons of Su­per Rugby since then and also been in­volved with Spring­bok squads.

That’s as­tound­ing for one so young – and he’s a prop!

Ask any of the old timers who made their names for WP down the years in that po­si­tion and they will tell you that you only re­ally de­velop as a prop by be­ing put through the school of hard knocks.

So Mal­herbe is still in the em­bry­onic stage of his ca­reer, and it goes with­out say­ing that so is his front-row part­ner for much of this past sea­son, Steven Kit­shoff, who is even younger than he is.

Kit­shoff and Mal­herbe were on ei­ther side of hooker Scarra Ntubeni when Prov­ince broke a long tro­phy drought by win­ning the Cur­rie Cup in an en­thralling fi­nal at Kings Park in Oc­to­ber.

Like them, Ntubeni is in his early twen­ties. So too is lock Eben Etze­beth, and Siya Kolisi.

But let’s not fo­cus on Kolisi, for it’s the youth of the tight for­wards that is in­ter­est­ing in the sense of what it tells us about the Storm­ers’ prospects go­ing for­ward.

In the wash-ups to the Su­per Rugby sea­son that the Storm­ers com­pleted way too pre­ma­turely last week there has been much fo­cus on game-plans and mind­sets.

None of it is ir­rel­e­vant, and it goes with­out say­ing that there have been times when the Storm­ers have ham­strung them­selves with a de­fen­sive mind­set.

But the real Achilles heel for the Storm­ers across the past decade has been the lack of re­ally big grunt up front, and a study of where the Storm­ers have suc­ceeded and failed in the matches played this past sea­son un­veils an in­ter­est­ing trend.

In the two tough away derby matches that started the sea­son they strug­gled in the scrums and in the li­ne­outs. The basics were ne­glected and they had no plat­form to play off. They lost both.

Then came two high-pres­sure home matches against high-fly­ing teams in the form of the cham­pion Chiefs and the Brumbies – and they won both in rous­ing fash­ion.

Not only that, they scored seven tries across the two games against good de­fen­sive sys­tems, and af­ter­wards the crit­ics praised them for the am­bi­tion and freedom that they played with.

What was com­mon to both games though was that the Storm­ers tight five played well in both those games, and the backs and loose-for­wards had a plat­form to play off.

IThey were cru­cial must-win games, and yet the Storm­ers play­ers never ap­peared to strug­gle with the pres­sure.

So the ar­gu­ment that last week’s big win over the Bulls was achieved by a team that had ex­pe­ri­enced a pres­sure re­lease and thus was pre­pared to be bolder might be short of the mark.

The con­tention that the win­ning team was one that has sorted out its first-phase prob­lems might be more ac­cu­rate.

Go through the rest of the sea­son and the trend is im­pos­si­ble to miss. Against the Cru­saders, hooker Deon Fourie and his jumpers strug­gled in the first half hour, and it al­lowed the de­pleted vis­i­tors to get into the game. Against the Chee­tahs in Bloem­fontein the Storm­ers were win­ning un­til the scrum fell apart later on.

Then came the last five matches – when iron­i­cally Brok Har­ris was re­called to plug a hole left by in­jury and li­ne­out king­pin An­dries Bekker was ab­sent – and a near per­fect run in the tight phases co­in­cided with five suc­ces­sive vic­to­ries.

When the Storm­ers did ap­pear to lack am­bi­tion this sea­son was on the over­seas tour.

But then I’m not sure that the tight ap­proach against the Waratahs and Blues was the wrong one given where those teams are strong and also where the Storm­ers’ strength was be­fore the in­jury to Duane Ver­mue­len.

The Storm­ers boasted a good track record be­fore this year when it came to ap­ply­ing the phys­i­cal suf­fo­ca­tion medicine to those teams, and they prob­a­bly would have beaten the Waratahs were it not for the si­mul­ta­ne­ous in­juries to Ver­meulen and Ryn­hardt El­stadt that swung mo­men­tum in the last 10 min­utes.

But men­tion of the Waratahs and Blues is a re­minder that there is a rea­son why the Storm­ers tend to be con­ser­va­tive against cer­tain op­po­nents.

That smaller play­ers have pos­ses­sion more eas­ily turned over against big­ger op­po­nents is just a fact of na­ture and in that re­gard I am pleased that the Storm­ers will be re­tain­ing the ser­vices of Jaco Taute next sea­son, but sorry that they missed out on a re­cent bid for a big Samoan winger.

The last time the Storm­ers were a con­sis­tent at­tack­ing force was when Sireli Naqele­vuki was still play­ing for them and they need to find some­one with sim­i­lar di­men­sions to fill the void he has left.

Get that right be­hind a ma­tur­ing pack and my money says we will see the Storm­ers fly to new lev­els.

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