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