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Don’t throw out the baby

They say that is a sign of madness when, after trying something that fails, you keep trying it expecting a different result, but that should not apply to the Stormers coach Robbie Fleck’s pledge to maintain the same path his team were on when they conceded two consecutive 50 pointers.

On the contrary, if Fleck now decided to commit his team to a more conservative approach, as has been the case on many other occasions that South African sides have been undone by New Zealand opposition down the years, that would be madness. The old limited percentage approach never achieved consistent success and is the reason there is still such a yawning chasm between the level of play you see from the Kiwi teams and the South African franchises.

There have been a couple of games where top South African teams have taken 50 from New Zealand sides in the last 12 months. It started in the last weekend of April 2016 when the Hurricanes put a half century past the Lions. The game was played at the Lions’ home field in Johannesburg, and it was no different to what the Stormers suffered over the past two weekends at away venues.

Then of course the Kings Park press box was my vantage point when the Springboks were similarly put to the sword by the All Blacks. It was harrowing evening from a South African viewpoint and it was the event that hastened the correction attempts, such as the national coaching indaba in Cape Town that followed it.

It was also the game among the four I have mentioned – the Lions defeat and two Stormers losses being the others – that was deserving of the most recrimination. For at least in the case of the two South African franchises they perished trying to play a more modern and dynamic style of attacking rugby.

The difference between Springbok coach Allister Coetzee, and the Lions coach Johan Ackermann, and Fleck was that the latter two have been bold. With Coetzee it has always been the opposite. Coetzee, it will be remembered, had Morne Steyn at flyhalf for the Durban test last October. He was hoping his team could kick its way to victory around one man, as had been the case in the fortunate win over Australia in Pretoria the week before.

The Lions learned some valuable lessons from the Hurricanes game last April and they applied the remedies. They didn’t lose again at home and they went on to contest the final. It might be a long shot to expect the Stormers to go as far as the deciding game, but Fleck is right – if his team can internalise what they got out of the Christchurch and Dunedin experiences, and remedy the areas where they were exposed, they will come out of it a much better team.

They have dropped three successive games but they must still be strongly favoured to win their conference, where the Bulls and Cheetahs have been abjectly disappointing, and thus secure a home play-off. That will be in late July, and the Stormers have that amount of time to think about what they have learned in New Zealand.

And one of the pivotal things they should have learned, apart from the fact that defensive issues cannot just be glossed over, is that the focus on core skills that started last November is the right way to go.

It was the winning of the smaller battles within the main battle that underlined the difference between the Stormers and Highlanders in Dunedin. To my mind two significant moments of the game were when Ben Smith hoisted the ball onto his Stormers opposite number SP Marais and won the ball back in the contest.

There were many other areas where the Kiwis just displayed the greater finesse and accuracy that comes from many hours of concentration on individual core skills. That focus is something that the Stormers have only just started out on, and hopefully the rest of South Africa (excluding the Lions, who are still benefiting from what New Zealander John Mitchell showed them five years ago) will follow suit.

Fleck is right in saying that New Zealand is the best place to learn. His team never went to New Zealand last year so many of his players are experiencing something completely new to them. They now know that mistakes simply cannot afforded against Kiwi opposition. And by continuing with the drills they started working on in November, they will in time start to eliminate those mistakes.

The Kiwi teams are brutal when it comes to capitalising on your mistakes. There were several times, both in Christchurch and Dunedin, where the Stormers were on the attack and then made mistakes that cost them points at the other end of the field.

That is what they need to get right. They need to accept that maybe they aren’t quite as good as the thought they were, and that the opposition might be better than they thought they were, and resolve to close the gap by improving the core skills. Unlike Kings Park last October, the Stormers defeats in Christchurch and Dunedin should not be seen as reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.

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