Loftus a triumph for Rassie’s way
Coach Allister Coetzee and the players deservedly took a lot of credit for the Stormers’ famous drought-breaking win over the Vodacom Bulls last weekend, but a statement from skipper Jean de Villiers inadvertently pointed to someone else who should be lauded for his massive role in the turn-around.
“The age-group teams are enjoying great success and a lot of those players are now coming through into the senior team,” said De Villiers.
“The injection of new blood has been refreshing and it has brought a fresh attitude. Someone like Gary van Aswegen (last year’s WP under-21 flyhalf who sat on the bench at Loftus) has never lost against the Bulls. So for him there is no baggage when he plays against them.”
The success that was referred to by De Villiers was the double scored by the two WP age-group sides last season. Both the under-19 and under-21 sides won their competitions, and both of them had to beat Bulls teams in their respective finals after winning both the home and away league matches against those opponents.
As up to recently the Bulls tended to dominate the WP age-group teams in both competitions, that is a significant turn-around, and the young players being blooded into the Stormers senior team – Van Aswegen, Danie Poolman, Siyabonga Ntubeni, Frans Malherbe, Rynhardt Elstadt (Nick Koster, though only 21, has of course been there before) – is a tribute to the work that has been put in by Rassie Erasmus.
The former Springbok flanker decided to relinquish the Stormers coaching role to Coetzee at the start of last year as he felt that developing a culture of sustained success for WP would depend on him devoting his efforts to the systems that he felt needed to be put into place across all levels.
The WP Institute in Stellenbosch was the brainchild of Gert Smal and was developed through the effort of Erasmus’s predecessor in what is essentially the WP director of rugby position, Nick Mallett, and the institution's chief executive, Jacques Hanekom.
But Erasmus has worked closely with Stef Nel and Hanekom in identifying talent, and after an exhaustive study of the strengths and shortcomings of Cape rugby, Erasmus has been good in communicating what type of player is needed.
Erasmus also helps out at the Institute whenever he can, and it has had a spin-off at under-19 level as almost all of the players in the WP team attend the Institute. Last year I went to Stellenbosch to interview players for a magazine article and I was impressed with how enthusiastic they were about Erasmus’s contribution and the way they were encouraged to buy into the WP culture and WP way through the efforts of the chief honcho.
Erasmus’s plan, which he stated early in his tenure at WP, has always been to ensure that WP could reach a situation where they had two strong players in each position available to the senior team and an excellent youngster coming through to back those players up.
When Erasmus expressed his ambitions it sounded like pie in the sky, but his plans, which are not unlike those which Heyneke Meyer used in creating the Bulls dynasty, are now starting to come to fruition.
Not a lot of people take much interest in the Vodacom Cup, but it is the next level down from Super Rugby at this time of the year. It does tell you which unions and franchises boast the most depth. For a long time the Bulls ruled the roost in that competition when it came to the second-string sides from the major centres.
That has changed, however, and the Bulls have now lost four matches in succession – and WP ensured that there was a double reason for Cape fans to celebrate at Loftus on Saturday as they beat the Blue Bulls in the main curtain-raiser to the Super Rugby clash.
This means that players who graduate from the Vodacom side, which is a young team, to the senior ranks, will go to Loftus in future years having experienced what it is like to win at a ground which the Stormers' skipper describes as the most difficult venue in world rugby for a visiting team to win at.
There are those who don’t see the importance of age-group rugby and who make statements like “You just take a couple of those players into the senior ranks and you can always buy from other unions”. But that displays crass ignorance and a complete misunderstanding of the Erasmus plan and where WP fell down before he arrived.
It was because they neglected their pipeline that the Sharks fell on hard times in the early part of last decade, and it is since they have started to place more emphasis on what is going into and coming out of their Academy, age-group rugby and the Vodacom team, that the Durban union has reasserted itself.