Stormers poised to do a Chelsea
The Cape fans getting all heated up about the latest Springbok selections should pause for breath and take cognizance of a few things before throwing themselves off Table Mountain in a fit of pique.
Firstly, Heyneke Meyer is not the first Bok coach to have ignored Peter Grant’s claims to the green and gold jersey. Jake White felt there were other players better than him and Peter de Villiers said in his book that he felt Grant wasn’t quick enough for international rugby. There are others who feel he just doesn’t get enough distance on his field kicking boot to play at the highest level, where the territory battle is frequently what determines the result.
Secondly, if all the Stormers forwards were fit and available at the moment, that franchise would probably have provided half of the starting pack for Saturday’s first test against England in Durban. Duane Vermeulen is known to be a firm favourite with Meyer, and Schalk Burger and Andries Bekker would be considered shoo-ins. If Bekker played, then Etzebeth, another player Meyer regards highly, would have started with him – and maybe he will still get a debut as a starter this weekend.
The Stormers’ achievement this past weekend was winning at Loftus without key players. Those key players just happened to be near certainties for the Bok team. Had they been fit and available, they would have been in the group, and the Stormers would have had a bigger complement of players and the Bulls a smaller one.
I might agree with the sentiment over Siya Kolisi if he was being completely ignored by Meyer. But Kolisi, although not in the official group, is in Umhlanga Rocks at the moment with the Bok squad learning the ropes and getting used to how it is done at international level.
Meyer wouldn’t have asked him to come if he didn’t rate him. Let’s not forget that Kolisi is very young, as is Frans Malherbe, another Stormers player who is in Umhlanga Rocks with the Boks. Presumably, were he not involved with the SA under-20 team at the Junior World Cup, Steven Kitshoff would be here too.
I agree that the omissions of Juan de Jongh and Gio Aplon were the wrong calls, and they should have been in the squad. But so much of the vitriol being directed at Meyer is missing the point of what the Stormers are about – although there is awesome future potential in several of the players, right now the Stormers team is more than the sum of its parts.
Which is another way of saying that the Stormers' success is down to the coaches and the systems they have put in place, and the team ethos that shone through like a beacon in the dark at Loftus on Saturday, as indeed it did in the second half in Durban a week before.
The Stormers are where they are on the log because they have the best defensive system in the competition, because over the past few seasons they have prioritised physicality to the point where they have few teams that can touch them in that area, and because the players play for each other and play for their coaches.
When players and coaches say at press conferences that it is not about individuality they are not just saying that – it is a massive part of the Stormers psychology in the modern era and explains why they are achieving what some previous Stormers teams that had far more marquee players failed to do.
The win at Loftus was a huge effort considering the players who were out, but if you were a visitor from Mars you would not necessarily say that the players in the blue outfits were more talented than the ones wearing pink. The guys in blue may be the better team – in fact the log positions and number of wins suggests they definitely are – but that is not the same as saying they are the better players.
The factors that make the Stormers such a tight knit unit and such an organised team, coupled with the Springbok coach’s help by assuring players a month of rest when they most need it, have combined to make me far less bleak about the Stormers' prospects in Super Rugby than they were at the start of the competition.
I still think the Crusaders will win it, but with the Stormers now in a position where they may be able to dictate terms and force the Crusaders to come to Cape Town, I am not as clear on that as I was. And every time I see the Stormers putting in one of those giant defensive efforts like last Saturday’s I keep thinking of the recent Champions League.
In the games I watched Chelsea play they relied almost completely on defence, and yet they came through and won the competition. In the semifinal they did it when they were even down a man, as the Stormers were for part of the second half at Loftus.
I remember thinking when Chelsea defied what most critics were predicting by winning it on defence that it might be an omen for the Stormers – and Chelsea also just happen to wear blue. So don’t bet against the Stormers doing a Chelsea – they are now well placed to show that you don’t need to have the most Springboks to win the trophy.