Now comes the post-Rassie challenge
The sun rose over Cape Town on Sunday, as I had predicted it would in a newspaper column the day before. So at least I got one thing right!
Not that the results of the two semifinals were completely unexpected. The Crusaders were always going to miss Kieran Read, and as I reminded newspaper readers in that same column, which was an attempt to suggest ways for Stormers fans to deal with depression if the unthinkable was to happen, the Sharks did come to Newlands with six starting Springbok forwards in their pack (Ryan Kankowski must surely wear the No 8 in The Castle Championship).
On that basis, if the Stormers/Sharks game had been played on neutral territory or on a level playing field, the Sharks would always have started as favourites. The travel factor made them underdogs, but with the personnel they had at their disposal, they always stood a chance of winning – which was why I suggested in that column that Stormers fans keep a copy of U2’s “It’s a beautiful day” on hand for a commiserating Sunday drive into the Karoo.
I don’t know if there was a mass migration of sad Stormers supporters to Laingsburg on Sunday for I was never going to join them. When they went into the June break for international rugby on top of their conference I started to believe it was possible on the basis that Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen were supposed to be returning, but in reality the Stormers season ended where at the start of the year I thought it would.
Indeed, you could say they went further than I thought they would, for when I wrote my pre-season prediction column the Sharks were my SA conference winners. If you look at the disparity in their representation in Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok team in comparison with the Bulls and the Sharks, then the Stormers were over achievers in 2012, and not the failures some would make them out to be.
The Stormers’ success this year was built around the systems put in place by former director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and carried on by Allister Coetzee and the other coaches. It was because Erasmus was not going to be there that at the beginning of the competition my outlook for the Stormers was not a positive one.
By winning the conference and topping the overall log they emphatically proved me wrong, but in the aftermath of the semifinal defeat I am not sure my initial misgivings were misplaced. When Erasmus left he took away the coaching X-factor that may be needed in order for the Stormers to make the subtle adjustments necessary for them to rediscover the balance they had to their game in 2010 but which has been lacking since then.
This time last year the discourse following the Crusaders defeat was the same as it is now – the Stormers were being criticised for being overly defensive. A top of the log finish justified Coetzee’s approach, but I am not sure he was right when he said after the Sharks game that his team improved this year.
Maybe in terms just of wins and losses they did, and 14 wins in 16 starts was a phenomenal performance. But in neither 2011 nor 2012 did the Stormers look as complete as a team as they did at the start of their current winning cycle in 2010.
Had they not lost unexpectedly to the Sharks in Durban in a league game near the end of the competition, the Stormers would have finished top of the log that season and might well then have won the trophy. Among the big wins they scored was a 50 pointer against the Chiefs in Hamilton and a 42-14 massacre of the Crusaders in Cape Town.
That Stormers team had the same defence coach they do now and much of their success was built around their defensive system. Yet they were also able to hurt opponents with their attacking game, and did so regularly.
Throwing the baby out with the bath water and trying to reinvent their game would be a dangerous thing for the Stormers to do now. Given that they don’t have as many Springboks and don’t have as large or as expensive a squad as the other two top SA franchises, it might only ensure that next year the Stormers get to avoid the misery of a semifinal defeat for the wrong reason, being that they don’t make the playoffs at all.
What the Stormers need to do is rediscover whatever it was that gave them the right balance in 2010. If Erasmus was still present I would have greater faith in their ability to do that, so it is going to be interesting to see how Allister Coetzee is going to respond to the challenge of being effectively both the coach and the director of rugby.
This period, when an analysis of approach and ways to improve it and a stock take of personnel might be necessary (until Malherbe and Kitshoff mature there will be question marks over the scrumming before really big games), was always going to be the big test for the Stormers post-Erasmus. The way it is dealt with will determine whether I am being overly pessimistic when I suggest that the best chance of the Stormers winning the Super Rugby trophy may now have passed.