New coaches may confound the critics
It was just three weeks on from the New Year celebration and the sun was beating down, but that was not why going to Newlands this past weekend was a new experience for Cape rugby writers.
Apart from being the opening match of what promises to be a ridiculously long 2006 rugby year (we cannot talk in terms of seasons any more, because rugby appears to be an all-year sport, with just the December holidays completely rugby-free), it was also a special day for the local media.
The Super 14 warm-up match coincided with the first official use of the new press box at Newlands. Journalists about to visit Cape Town in the early stages of the Super 14 season, when it will still be the height of summer, should be warned that they must bring peaks and sun-glasses.
The most significant thing about the new press area, however, is the height, and the different aspect it gives you of the field. One hack, obviously not possessed of the keenest or sharpest eye-sight, complained that he could not recognise the players. Although I have good eyes, I knew what he meant when he said that.
But there may be some who, after seeing the score in the game between the Stormers and the Bulls and then reading my match-reports, who must wonder if I went a step further than my colleagues and watched proceedings from outer space.
The Stormers lost by 31 points, they conceded seven tries, and yet I found plenty to be positive about for the Cape franchise?! Yes, it may be a sign of the times. After last year’s 75-14 defeat at Loftus, almost anything represents a significant improvement.
Yet it is not really that. Instead, it is an understanding of what a warm-up game is all about. There were no log points at stake, the victors earned nothing for being ahead on the scoreboard other than the positive psychology which goes with winning.
Losing did not mean a negative mark next to the psychology of the Stormers, however, as the teams were in a different stage of their buildup. The Stormers were playing their first match, while the Bulls were playing their second.
This explained the second string nature of the host line-up while the Bulls were at full-strength as Heyneke Meyer starts to look at his combinations. It meant aspects of play needed to be looked at rather than the end result.
The young Stormers did not put it together for the full 80 minutes, but before the changes were made to the team composition halfway through the game they did show massive improvements in several areas.
This included the lineouts and their play at the breakdown, both areas where the Bulls murdered them both at Currie Cup and Super 14 level in 2005. It was also an important opportunity for Kobus van der Merwe to run his eye over the newcomers, and this was another big plus, with Naas Olivier and some of his teammates showing signs of promise.
Of course, others did the exact opposite, which is why we probably won’t see them again – either in the future warm-up games or in the Super 14 itself.
Overall though there appeared to be a different attitude about the Stormers players, and this is where some of the predictions about their chances in the coming season may be a little premature.
I am not going to go out on a limb now and say that the Stormers are going to make the semi-finals. They have a new team and carry their usual vulnerabilities at tight five, where they cannot afford injuries.
But after the opening warm-up game you won’t catch me singing the Stormers epitaph for the simple reason that we don’t really what to expect. For not only is it a new season, it is also only really now that we will be able to start making an educated judgement on the abilities of the new coaching staff.
Van der Merwe, rugby director Nick Mallett and the rest of the management have now had an entire off-season to work with the players. It is a very different scenario to the one they faced when they took over with the 2005 season already in full swing.
They would have pinpointed the weaknesses in the squad at the end of last year, and they committed themselves then to doing what they are employed to do, which is to coach the material they do have into something that can perform at Super 14 level.
The same can be said about Dick Muir at the Sharks. Like Van der Merwe, Muir came in when the 2005 season was already up and running. You would have to be a magician, and not just a rugby coach, if you could turn a struggling team into a winning one in the space of a few months in mid-season.
In both coastal franchises, the time to start judging the new coaches only really arrives in the coming months. It makes it interesting, and this might not be a wise time to make too many predictions about how either team will fair. Like the Cheetahs and the Western Force, who are newcomers to the competition, we will just have to wait and see.