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Rassie’s ‘school of physicality’ reaping dividends

Friday night’s win over the Blues was impressive, but it might have been what followed the next day in Durban that best underlined why, during the short-term at least, the Stormers should continue the rise that started when Rassie Erasmus moved to the Cape in 2008.

The Western Province Vodacom Cup side only beat a strong Sharks XV by two points, but it was the elements that were similar to what we had seen at Newlands the night before that made the game noteworthy. Thumping double tackles, an organised defensive system, a strong emphasis on physical dominance at the gainline, aggressive play from the tight forwards, in particular a driving lock – they’re all what you could call the hallmarks of the modern Cape approach to the game.

And they’re an advertisement of how successful Erasmus was during his time as director of rugby in his stated mission of changing aspects of the culture of the Stormers and WP game and getting all the teams that make up the professional arm of the union onto the same page.

The youngsters I interviewed at the WP Rugby Institute in Stellenbosch over the past two years always spoke about the important role that Erasmus played when he popped in to work with them. With many of those players also playing for the WP under-19 team, even some of the calls the team adopted were the same as those used by the senior team. Erasmus made it clear that he wanted the youngsters coming through the system, and who were part of his succession planning programme, to be able to make an easy transition if called upon to move up to senior level.

Last year the fact it was a World Cup year prevented the under-21 team from dominating their tournament as they had in 2010. The reason was obvious – the bulk of the age-group side ended up playing in the Currie Cup, leaving John Dobson, who is also in charge of the Vodacom Cup side, with an impossible ask.

But when the cream of the youngsters were playing for the age-group side we saw something similar to what was picked up on the televised evidence from Mr Price Kings Park this past weekend – the style of play they adopted and the strengths of their game made them seem almost a carbon copy of the senior WP and Stormers teams.

Some of the youngsters that have come through what you could call Erasmus’s school of physicality are now making their mark at senior level. Eben Etzebeth might have been considered to be behind the impressive Quinn Roux in the pecking order of under-21 locks last season, but with Roux injured at the start of this one, and Rynhardt Elstadt, another youngster who made his mark last year, also out, Etzebeth has taken his chance to confirm that he has immense potential.

And two players who came through the system to be blooded in 2011 are also showing they have learned from that experience, with both Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe, props scarcely into their third decade of life, drawing high praise from Blues skipper Keven Mealamu.

The upshot of all this hard work done on bringing through young tight forwards and introducing a culture based around the physicality that used to be lacking from the WP game is that we may have reached a situation where the Stormers are now weaker at the back than they are at forward. With Johann Sadie now at the Bulls, there certainly isn’t quite as much excitement about the quality of the backs coming through as there is about the forwards.

With Elstadt impressing on his return to rugby in Durban on Saturday, the Stormers do have the sort of options in the tight five they would have only dreamed about a few seasons ago. They are even in the happy position of being able to think of resting Andries Bekker, with Etzebeth moving to No 5 lock, where he has spent most of his career, and Elstadt joining him in a formidably aggressive second row.

It’s still early days though and the potential of the young forwards is not something that is news to me. The Stormers coaches have done well to contract the four youngsters who have most impressed until 2015, but judging from the way he dealt with the issue at a press conference after the Blues game, head coach Allister Coetzee does appear to share my concern at the amount of hype being heaped on the young pack.

While the Stormers forwards have done well so far, the Hurricanes’ strength is definitely not at forward and both the Sharks and the Blues were severely depleted. The big test will come when they come up against a team that takes them on at their own game and has the players who, if they get in first, could themselves be the dominant force.

Last year the Stormers started well and then were shown up by the Reds and Crusaders, and it must be remembered that the current Stormers pack is young. That means a time will surely come when they will have the roles reversed on them, and how they react to that will tell us a lot about whether they are ready to assume the mantle of championship contenders this early in their development.

But you have to say that it has been a case of so far, so good, with the impressive feature of the last few games being the way the Stormers have managed to regroup and put in an extra effort just when the opposition look like challenging them late in the game. That was not something we saw in previous seasons.

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