Bad result but Stormers in good place
Losing a home match to the Crusaders wasn’t the result that the DHL Stormers would have wanted ahead of their four-match overseas Super Rugby tour, but in one sense they are in the perfect place as they embark on their journey.
While the defeat to the seven time champion team has left the Stormers vulnerable to the chasing pack in their conference and has seen them drop to fourth on the overall log after being second last week, they are at least in the rare position for this stage of the season of having a full squad to call on.
Tiaan Liebenberg, who started the year as the first choice hooker but suffered a knee injury, returned from a nine week lay-off towards the end of the Crusaders match and after also playing part of a Vodacom Cup match the week before he will now have shaken off enough rust to be up for selection to the starting team for the opening tour match against the Chiefs on Saturday.
But Stormers coach Allister Coetzee is in the happy position of not needing to rush Liebenberg back into action as Deon Fourie has been one of several young players who has been a revelation in the first half of the season. It won’t be an easy selection for Coetzee, and neither will be some of the selection decisions he faces in the backline.
Both Peter Grant and Bryan Habana have been declared fit to play against the Chiefs if Coetzee wants them to. But both Lionel Cronje and Johann Sadie have done well enough in the absence of the experienced star duo for it not to be completely necessary for Coetzee to start with them. This could be a time when, like Sharks coach John Plumtree, the Stormers coach can look at adopting a policy of easing injured players back through the bench.
Cronje can of course also play fullback, which was where he ended the Crusaders game and where he played most of his Vodacom Cup rugby before being called into the Stormers team when back-up flyhalf Gary van Aswegen was injured against the Lions. Not that there has been anything wrong with the form of Conrad Jantjes since his return from injury a few weeks ago.
Indeed, Jantjes’s form at fullback has been a revelation, so if Coetzee is to consider Cronje for the No 15 jersey it will be with a specific role in mind.
Another recent under-21 star, Nick Koster, put in a great run and showed that he has regained all his old explosiveness and pace towards the end of the Crusaders game so the Stormers will be pleased that he was also given a clean bill of health and was able to leave with the squad after he was forced off the field towards the end of the Newlands match.
The only top player on the Stormers books who was not available to tour was another flanker, Pieter Louw, who is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
So while the Stormers will agree they butchered a great chance of consolidating their position at the top of the conference when they wasted so many scoring opportunities against the Crusaders, they are at least in a position where they are at full muster going into this critical stage of the season.
Coetzee will be the first to agree though that while the Stormers do enjoy touring as the pressure of playing at home in front of surely the most demanding media and public in the competition is sometimes inhibiting, they are going to have to start capitalising on their try-scoring opportunities.
They scored four tries against the Sharks in the previous match but even then they wasted chances that should have been taken, and they can't afford to do that in an away leg which, given the tight race between themselves and the Sharks for conference honours, leaves little room for error.
“We’ve been our own worst enemies -- a mistake here, a lineout lost there, a kick not out there -- but it’s little things that we know we can fix,” said Coetzee.
“We don’t look at it emotionally. Like when we win, we take it and enjoy it. And when we lose, one just has to take it on the chin and accept it. We were beaten by the better side on the night -- a side who really capitalised on their opportunities.”
Coetzee is right about that, the Crusaders did play well, and while the injuries to the Crusaders suggested the Stormers should have won at Newlands, it should not be forgotten that a similar Crusaders team, also without Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Sam Whitelock, recently beat the Bulls 27-0 in New Zealand.
What Coetzee and his players are going to have to accept, if they haven’t already, is that the other teams are now starting to target them as the Stormers have earned the respect which maybe they weren’t accorded at times in previous years. It’s going to make their tour a whole lot more difficult.