Cape Town - It may seem a daunting task to keep the Crusaders quiet but the challenge of trying to do so in Saturday’s Super Rugby showdown at Newlands is one that Stormers coach Norman Laker is looking forward to.
The Stormers have only won five of their 11 matches this season but, as Laker points out, their defence has made a significant step up from previous years. While it was a strength of the Stormers when Jacques Nienaber was the defence coach, it fell away and was neglected in subsequent seasons.
There have been some individual setbacks, such as the occasional missed one-on-one tackle and a penalty try was conceded at a crucial stage of the last match against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. But generally the Stormers have travelled a long way since Rosco Spekman scored some soft tries against them in the opening match against the Bulls in Pretoria and having Laker as the defence coach has brought a big improvement.
It was effectively their physical defence that won them their match against the Rebels in the final match of the Australasian tour in Melbourne, and it was also to the fore in the away win against the Sharks and the comprehensive home win against the Jaguares.
That last mentioned game was the only one where the Stormers have netted a full house of five log points by winning and scoring the bonus point, and one of the reasons they are languishing on the conference log is because their attacking play hasn’t matched the effectiveness of their defence. An example of that was the narrow loss to the Brumbies, where the Stormers struggled to come to terms when they had the ball with the committed high press Brumbies defence system.
It was the game where they won the least ball, the one against the Rebels, that the Stormers were close to their most impressive, and Laker has not forgotten that.
"The Crusaders are a great attacking team but we are looking forward to the game because that means it is a good challenge for us and we have prided ourselves with our defensive effort in the last few games," said Laker.
"Obviously the results have not been coming our way, and normally if your defence is sound you get better results, but we have had a few games where we’ve lost by five or six points. The team has generally played well and defended well this year but unfortunately the ball is not round and we have often had the bounce go against us.
"But against the Rebels we showed what we can do when we do get the bounce go our way. We scored more than 40 points away against the top team in the Australian conference and our defence was phenomenal that day."
Laker referenced the Springboks’ win over the All Blacks in Wellington last year as an example of what could be achieved by the Stormers playing to their strengths against the Super Rugby champions.
"It is not going to help if you try to beat Michael Schumacher when driving a Fuller, we need to focus on our strengths. We pride ourselves defensively and we have mean ball carriers to get us over the gainline so I don’t think we must go away from it and try and play their rugby," said Laker.
"We must do what the Boks did in Wellington last year. They defended 80 percent of that game and yet came away with a famous victory. The key of course is to take opportunities when they come, and score from them."
That last point is important of course, and there appeared to be a tacit admission from Laker that the Stormers would have to score tries to win when he referenced the Sharks’ recent draw with the Crusaders in Christchurch.
"The Sharks were phenomenal in the conditions that the game was played in, which I did think suited the Sharks more than the Crusaders," he said.
"We can take a cue from them there. They physically manned up and were defensively outstanding. If you can keep them scoreless, well maybe it’s not possible to keep them scoreless as they are a great attacking team… but that is what the Sharks almost did."
Saying that the Sharks did a good defensive job though does sum up the extent of the Crusaders’ attacking capability. For the Crusaders still scored three tries on a day the Sharks were unable to cross the opposition line.
And there will be one key difference to this Crusaders team compared to the one that played the Sharks - they should have their star flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and All Black inside centre Ryan Crotty standing next to one another in the backline decision-making axis.
"Their 10 and 12 do make a big difference when they are playing, they are both phenomenal players," agreed Laker.
"They were back for the last game (against the Bulls) and the difference they made was astounding. Mo’unga’s cross kicks are very tough to defend against. I was saying to the guys earlier that it was like he put in two brilliant passes (at Lotus) with the foot. It’s obviously the understanding between Mo’unga and the two wingers that makes it possible so our guys are going to have be very aware of where their wings are and the fact that it might come their way so that they can work together to negate the threat."
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