Sharks know the pressure Stormers face
There is one team in Vodacom Super Rugby that understands better than any other the mood that the DHL Stormers will bring with them when they come to Durban for Saturday’s coastal derby at Kings Park – and that would be their opponents, the Sharks.
The Stormers have what is considered an easy run-in to the end of the season, and there is a theory that any hiccups now can be made up then. But they start out with as tough an opening sequence of matches as can be imagined, and any pre-season theorising by coach Allister Coetzee can be forgotten once reality bites.
And reality has already bitten in a big way for the Stormers, who for the first time in significantly more than a season were forced to return from a match without even a bonus point for their effort. More than that, their performance in the 25-17 defeat to the Vodacom Bulls was considered so abject by Coetzee that he labeled it an embarrassment to the Stormers jersey.
While it is true, as Coetzee put it at a press conference in Cape Town on Monday, that the Stormers would not have expected “to come out of the blocks at 100 miles an hour” after a relatively low-key onfield build-up to the new season, the magnitude of their no-show at Loftus was disturbing and had skipper Jean de Villiers stressing that the Stormers needed to become a team again.
The Stormers limited the number of preparation fixtures this year in the quest for better timing of the peaking phase. In the past three years they have started the season as if they had a train to catch, only for injuries and fatigue to catch up with them later in the competition.
They have been the most consistent team in that they have made the semifinals every time and have finished in the top two every time, but in the playoffs they have looked like they are running on empty. The theory is that this year they would like to save themselves so that they have more gas in the tank at the end.
But what Coetzee would have been alerted to after Loftus is something he hasn’t experienced before – the early season pressure that comes with an opening defeat. If they get back on the tracks this week against the Sharks much of that pressure will be eased, but what if they don’t? The Cape, with its passionate rugby media, can be a difficult place to be when the atmosphere turns negative, something that the Stormers have only experienced after being knocked out in recent seasons.
The Sharks know though exactly what it’s like to be chasing the game early. And while they agree with the theory that you can make up lost ground because last year they started poorly and still made the final, they also know about the pressure that comes with a poor start. In short, it’s not fun to be playing a significant part of the season in a must-win situation where every game is like a final, and they would like that to be the Stormers this year rather than themselves.
In a bizarre twist, the Stormers are precisely where the Sharks were last year – coming off an opening defeat at Loftus while squaring up to their coastal rivals. According to Sharks assistant coach Hugh Reece-Edwards, it means his men know exactly what they are up against this week.
“We were in exactly the same situation last year as they are now so we know how they will be feeling going into this game and we understand the mood they will bring with them to Durban,” said Reece Edwards.
“Losing an opening match is a big wake-up call, and while one loss isn’t seen as a disaster, you know that you can’t afford to lose too many games after that or it will start to become a crisis. You don’t want to be 2-0 down after as many matches. So the Stormers will be coming to Durban feeling it’s a must-win for them, and we know that on Saturday we are going to be up against a very determined team that will be trying to rebound from last week.”
The Sharks did rebound in a sense last year, for they were better than the Stormers for much of the first round match in Cape Town in 2012. However they failed to put on points when they were in the ascendancy in the first half, and it came back to bite them later when the Stormers fought back in the last quarter to win with a last-minute kick from flyhalf Peter Grant.
Compounding the sense of this being a must-win for the Stormers is the knowledge that the following week’s match at Newlands against the Chiefs is by no means a gimme. The champions showed their qualities in a superb opening round win over the Highlanders in Dunedin and were easily the best team on view over the entire weekend.
They don’t look like they’re missing Sonny Bill Williams as much as it was thought they would and, most importantly, the fact they have broken through the barrier and won the competition hasn’t quenched their hunger.
So for the Stormers, even if the next two weeks won’t kill off their challenge, it is crunch time, and the Sharks know from their own past experience just what a dent they can put in the Stormers’ quest for the conference title that they themselves covet so highly.