Soul searching for dejected Stormers
It’s hard to recall when a player and coach looked more dejected than the Stormers duo of Jean de Villiers and Allister Coetzee did at the post-match press conference after their team’s 26-19 defeat to the Sharks in the Newlands Vodacom Super Rugby semifinal.
Peter de Villiers made a good fist of putting on a brave face when he faced the media after the Springboks’ quarterfinal loss in Wellington last year, so maybe you have to go back to the corresponding press conference of 2011, when Coetzee was faced with a similar situation, and similar questions, after his team’s defeat to the Crusaders.
Certainly the sense of it being a recurring nightmare was not lost on De Villiers. Visibly upset, De Villiers even went as far as to question his own captaincy and wonder aloud whether maybe he was getting it all wrong.
“At times like this you do start to doubt yourself, and doubt your captaincy,” said De Villiers.
“When you’ve been in this situation so many times, you do start to doubt yourself and start looking very deeply at what’s the real issue. You try to get answers, but it’s tough -- you don’t really know what to say. Again, the commitment was there.
“I said in the change room that we were in some dark places this season, and came out on top. And for that, I am very proud of this team. But after something like this you try hard to get answers, and after a while the answer is that you start to doubt yourself.”
Hopefully, because he has to captain the Springboks in The Castle Championship next month, De Villiers will quickly deal with the self-doubt he is feeling and find time to celebrate the fact that while it may be a recurring nightmare for him, at least he and his team were in a position to live through that nightmare. Most other Stormers teams, and previous Stormers captains, weren’t good enough to make a home semifinal, let alone win one.
Predictably, the questions about the Stormers’ tactics during the season resurfaced during the press conference, and the fact that the way the Stormers played was good enough for them to finish top of the log for the first time in their history was forgotten. While there is no denying the Stormers took wrong options at the end when the Sharks were out on their feet, and their attacking game does need working on, Coetzee rightly flat-batted any suggestions that this is a time when the Stormers should be considering reinvention.
“It was very disappointing for us and I have never seen players as cut up as the guys were in the change room afterwards,” said Coetzee.
“But that is part of life’s lessons. I would like to take the emotion out of this by reminding everyone that we are one of three sides that have improved this season and haven’t regressed. The others are the Sharks and the Chiefs. I think we made a step in the right direction, so I am pleased with the season. You have to give credit to the Sharks. They played well and they deserved the win.
“They put us under pressure, particularly in the first half, and we didn’t respond well to that pressure. But I still believe in what we are doing, and a season record that shows just three losses in 17 starts reflects that. I know standards are very high in Cape Town, and I respect that. We’ve just got to become more clinical with ball in hand and learn to have patience.
“In this match in the end it was down to the Sharks taking the chances that came their way and us not. One of their tries came off a scrum move and was really good, but the other try they scored was from a kick that we never fielded.”
The Stormers did butcher some great chances towards the end of the game, and even the Sharks coaches admitted afterwards they thought they were in trouble on a good few occasions only for the Stormers to choose the wrong options.
There is some justification in suggesting that the Stormers have too much of a defensive mindset, and it was a criticism leveled at them this time last year. But the Stormers, in their wash-up later this week, are going to have to consider whether they would have got this far in the first place was it not for their dominant defensive system.
The Stormers have played three successive home semifinals in Super Rugby, and in terms of making the playoffs, that makes them the most consistent Super Rugby team in that period. And yet the team that beat them on Saturday had six starting Springboks in the pack, whereas they could only boast one, and it was similarly lopsided last year, when the Stormers were essentially beaten by the All Blacks.
The Stormers representation in Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok squads is significantly behind that of both the Sharks and the Bulls, so if you look at it that way, then it becomes obvious that the Stormers have actually been over-achieving, and making the semifinals was a credit to the systems that the coaches have put in place.