Winter chill smashes into Table Mountain
Hoo boy! It’s that time of the year again in the Cape. Only it’s not just the first clouds and chilly blasts of the winter that have darkened the landscape, but the arrival of a wave of issues that many people hoped Western Province and the Stormers might have wriggled free of.
Last week I was poised to write a column in the build-up to Easter saying how swimmingly life suddenly seemed to be going for the Stormers. Yes, they had lost the first two games of the season, but they were away derbies against good teams. They had followed up with great victories over the champion Chiefs and the tournament front-runners, the Brumbies.
So far the Stormers have been the only side to inflict defeats on those franchises. And they both boast excellent defensive records, so the seven tries that the Cape team scored against them was no mean feat. The big issue of the four-try bonus point had at last been swept away, and no-one who has eyes to see with can ignore the improvements in the Stormers’ attacking game.
But the party-pooper Crusaders rode into town for the Easter Weekend, and so did their local supporters. True to the trend of the past few years, they changed the whole perspective. Suddenly there are so many issues that rugby is back on the front page of the newspapers.
Two seasons back we at least had to wait until July, and the semifinal stage, before the Crusaders prompted the sort of reaction in Cape Town you might have expected had an Emperor been assassinated or the city been invaded by rabies-infested baboons.
So we’re at it again, heading into an era of darkness, bringing out the sackcloth and ashes, the laments being heard whining from every public house from Noordhoek to Montagu – the Stormers are useless, horrible, they kick too much, they run too much, they defend too much, they’re too white, they’re too black, they’re too English, they’re too Afrikaans, they have too many Lions players…
I wrote at the weekend that they should not be losing to an under-strength Crusaders team at Newlands. Particularly at this time when the moniker “champion team” doesn’t really have the meaning it used to for the Crusaders. Everyone, including myself, keeps writing about their championship qualities, but they haven’t actually won Super Rugby since 2008.
If you’re going to refer to them as champions on the basis of the number of times they have won the competition, then Liverpool is a champion soccer team and the West Indies are a champion cricketing nation. The Bulls have won two Super Rugby titles since the last time the Crusaders won it, but you don’t hear people referring to their championship qualities. At least not outside of Pretoria you don’t.
But let me also point out what is really wrong with the Stormers. They’re too human. My gut feel through the summer was that the Currie Cup victory was a poisoned chalice, and they did seem a little too confident before the season started. When coach Allister Coetzee was asked at a press conference before the first game whether the team he had selected was the best Stormers side ever, he did not bat the question away like I thought he should have. He acted as if he agreed with the assessment.
With just two wins in five starts, the Stormers have lost the champion-in-waiting aura they wore at the start of the season. They’ve made mistakes and they’ve maybe neglected some of the areas that have made them strong over the past three years. They haven’t been helped by injuries.
But let’s also have a sense of perspective – even if the Stormers had done everything right this season, and they had suffered no injuries, they might still be sitting with three defeats in five starts.
If ever there was a Super Rugby draw from hell, then the one that the Stormers have been landed with is it. The Sharks had it tough last season when they had to travel to Pretoria and Cape Town for the first two games, but it got easier for them after that. The only thing that has counted for the Stormers since they went to Pretoria and Durban for their start is that they have played at home. Those games though have been against the champions, the early pace-setters in the competition, and the team everyone still thinks of as the champions even though they’re not.
Or, to be more specific about the Crusaders and what they are to the Stormers, let’s just refer to them as the hoodoo team. Even when they’re weakened, the Crusaders are good enough to win just about anywhere they are asked to play. Particularly, it seems, Newlands. And they were at their classy error-free best against the Stormers.
If Manchester United were to have a similar draw to the Stormers, it would mean they play Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool on consecutive weekends at the start of the season. Do you think Alex Ferguson would be pleased about that? And soccer isn’t as attritional as rugby is, so injuries aren’t as much of a factor, as they’re becoming for the Stormers now.
It’s not going to get any easier for the Stormers, for they face the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein this week and then host the Sharks, who beat them in a Newlands semifinal last season. Then comes the overseas tour.
So the Stormers have some tough times ahead of them if you consider they are quickly getting to the point where they can’t afford to lose any more games. They’re not helped by the apparent divisions in their supposed support base in the Cape, or by a media which they may feel is too quick to praise and equally too quick to criticise.
But then if you want to be a champion team, and they did have that intention at the start of the year, you have to be tough and live tough, and it may be because they feel the pressure less when they’re away from Cape Town that they tour well.
This period of hardship will make it all the more rewarding for them if they do go on and claim silverware in August. I won’t be betting against that happening. Not yet.