Cape Town – Early doubts are beginning to surface all over again in 2016 about the ability of the Stormers to construct tries … which will only give their supporters that bit more trepidation about the Super Rugby visit of the contrastingly prolific Brumbies to Newlands this weekend.
The side from the Australian Capital Territory are experiencing no such difficulty crossing the whitewash, having already notched a handsome 15 tries from their three unbeaten matches – easy mathematics of five a game.
It is not as though they have played rank minnows thus far, either: the Brumbies ran in seven tries against last season’s runaway ordinary-season standouts and eventual losing finalists the Hurricanes (52-10 outcome), four against nearby Aussie arch-rivals and 2014 champions the Waratahs (32-15) and a further four in the latest round away to the Western Force (31-14).
So it is a chalk-and-cheese situation when you weigh them up in that department against the Stormers, still nursing the wounds – perhaps more psychological than anything else – from their home 18-13 derby defeat to the Sharks.
Despite often clear-cut territorial and possession-based dominance on Saturday, the home side managed just one try and that kept the Sharks constantly interested in pulling off a mild upset – eventually secured near the finish when Joe Pietersen added the finishing touches to namesake JP Pietersen’s knife-like break through the normally resilient Stormers defence.
The Stormers sometimes made going sideways seem like a dubious intended art form, their quest for any better “go-forward” or breaching of the advantage line hardly helped by ponderous, lobbed passing and too often the presence of lumbering forwards as first or second receivers.
After three fixtures each, the Capetonians already lag well behind the Brumbies in the try column, averaging precisely two a match with six in total.
Ironically, the Stormers will know that in their next opponents they face a side with known cleverness and accuracy to their kicking game, yet also with a more multi-dimensional, incisive hand-to-hand approach at opportune moments to make them anything but a dour outfit.
It may be very early days in the much-reshaped competition this year but already only six sides, out of the full 18 taking part, trail the supposedly heavyweight Stormers for tries.
Fans would be entitled, frankly, to fear that the class of 2016 might be headed the way of Allister Coetzee-era Stormers teams of recent years: often pretty competitive overall while relying far more on Jacques Nienaber-engineered staunch defence than attacking gusto for progress, and never going all the way to the title.
Last year after ordinary season, for example, the Stormers saw only two sides (Rebels, Blues) post fewer tries of the then 15 participants, in 2014 there were only three inferior teams for “tries for”, whilst in 2013 it was two.
The strange “cherry on top” for the Stormers’ try-shy culture came in 2012, when they topped the overall table after ordinary season despite actually scoring fewer tries than any other team competition-wide – a rather dismal 28 from 16 fixtures (1.75 a match).
Nor is as though, this Saturday, the hosts will be able to rely on any kind of Newlands aura, something that can be daunting to many other outfits, against the Brumbies.
Stephen Moore and company will still have fairly vividly stamped in their minds memories of the 39-19 “quarter-final” grilling of the Stormers at that very venue last year, wing Joe Tomane’s hat-trick within 25 minutes tearing the heart out of the Stormers as the try count eventually ballooned to 6-1.
The present Stormers side is disadvantaged by the sidelining for several weeks of their first-choice flyhalf Robert du Preez, although it is a sobering thought that when the home side capitulated to the Brumbies last season, it occurred even with inside centre kingpin Damian de Allende at his station – and the powerful Springbok remains firmly absent during his gradual injury rehabilitation this time around.
It is clear that they are struggling to bring the game-breaking potential of their speedy back three (Cheslin Kolbe, Dillyn Leyds and rookie Leolin Zas) into the picture, and with this relatively lightweight trio confined largely to defensive chores – which they generally do bravely – they are vulnerable to being too easily bundled into touch when in possession under pressure.
Kolbe, with his incredible swerving and jinking skills and pace when he bursts through a hole, should probably be encouraged more, frankly, to risk running the ball out of his own quarter when there is a bit of space ahead, rather than kicking routinely for touch or back into the opponents’ hands.
Yes, there are some obvious hazards attached to that approach, but you just sense that years of instinctive conservatism continue to bedevil the Stormers’ stated wish under the fledgling tenure of Robbie Fleck to produce a brighter, less predictable brand of play.
A danger does exist that the Brumbies painfully remind them of that lingering hallmark for a second time in as many Newlands meetings.
The Stormers could be said to be trapped between a rock and a hard place as they prepare for the ambitious Brumbies’ visit: mindful of the increasing pressure to install some pronounced wow factor to their own approach, while wary of the visitors’ current ability to crack open defences almost ad nauseam …
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