So, what do you do on a Friday morning? Yes, most people work. It’s a rare thing to be able to say that watching a rugby match is actually work. So, what do you do on Saturday mornings? Run, go to gym, get dragged into a shopping centre by your significant other, watch the kids play their school sports?
When I hear people talking about the DHL Stormers’ performances on their just-completed overseas tour I’m reminded of the above reality. Sure, a significant number probably do watch the game live, but a significant number don’t, or I wouldn’t be hearing so much rubbish being spoken.
You can’t blame those who didn’t sit through the 240 minutes of rugby the Stormers played overseas if they saw the scores and then just opted against watching a recording of those matches. A last-gasp defeat to a Waratahs team the Stormers were expected to beat with their eyes closed just sounds like a frustrating way to spend 80 minutes, and the scores from the Crusaders and Highlanders games…well let’s just say it sounds like a case of “same old, same old”.
But a story, when properly told, should feature a body in addition to a beginning and an end. A flight doesn’t just feature a take-off and a landing, so when you ask someone if they had a good flight, you are also asking them about what happened in between those two events.
Which gets me to the point of the Stormers and the finer detail that was improved significantly on this tour in comparison to what we saw from them on the same trip last year.
Let’s start though with what wasn’t better. The lineouts were a disaster. The Stormers were unable to sustain pressure on their opponents because they’d get into a good position and then surrender the momentum to a poor lineout throw, poor jump or miscommunication.
The game against the Waratahs was lost because of a poor lineout. Two in fact. Even though it was the closest they came to getting a result, the Sydney game was by far the poorest Stormers performance of the tour. They were physically dominant in that game yet lost it because of individual defensive errors, poor discipline and elementary mistakes. The sort of mistakes that are punished more mercilessly by Kiwi sides, but they were punished by the Waratahs just enough for the Stormers to lose the game.
The individual defensive errors that cost the Stormers on a tour where the line-speed was light years improved on the 2017 tour does merit additional comment – one of the chief culprits was Raymond Rhule, which turns the spotlight on Western Province’s recruiting.
Given that defence and lack of physical presence out wide has been a perennial Stormers weakness for the best part of a decade, why recruit a wing who is not renowned for his defensive strength when that money should really be spent on securing the services of an experienced overseas flyhalf who can mentor Damian Willemse?
But enough of the negative for, to me, there was a lot that was positive that came out of the two games in New Zealand. For a start, there is plenty right with the Stormers’ recruiting when it comes to the forwards. The Crusaders weren’t at full strength for the Stormers game, but it is still hard to recall when last a Crusaders pack had to sustain the pressure that was applied in the last hour in Christchurch.
Their captain Sam Whitelock sounded like a relieved man when interviewed afterwards and it seems Fleck was right when he said his side earned the respect of the Kiwis. Both the Crusaders and the Highlanders knew they were in a game, and the Highlanders had to play well to win the Dunedin match, which was played at the tempo of a New Zealand derby.
This was another big positive. The Stormers didn’t look like they were playing slow motion this time around, and it was really only the first 20 minutes against the Crusaders, where they apparently had a massive wind advantage, where they weren’t competitive on this tour compared to most of the 240 minutes of their 2017 trip.
One of the problem areas identified then was the inability to make inroads by taking the ball through the middle. The Stormers survived on flashy offloads to score points 10 months ago, but they controlled their possession much better, and made more ground when carrying, as evidenced by the stats which reflected that they spent more than five minutes in the Highlanders’ 22 in the first half.
That is a bad stat if you balance it up against the Highlanders’ less than one minute in the Stormers 22 and yet they won the game, but it also tells you they must have been doing something right too. And that’s more than we could say last year.
If you just saw the results, it may seem like a case of same old, same old, but if you sat through the entire story of the Stormers’ tour, then their growth and improvement on last year – when they finished second to the Lions in the South African Group – would have been obvious.