Cape Town - The Stormers will be hoping that the Bulls subject them to the aggressive advancing defensive game that made them uncomfortable in New Zealand when the team's clash in their Super Rugby derby in Pretoria.
With their trip to Loftus effectively being a dress rehearsal for a quarter-final against a Kiwi team, the Stormers are hoping that the Bulls will ask questions of the areas that the Cape side struggled with on their tour of New Zealand.
The Bulls cut the normally reliable Sharks defence with ease in the recent Durban derby. So with Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel combining well in the midfield, Warrick Gelant posing a big threat from fullback and providing a new attacking dynamic the wings boasting pace and alertness to opportunities, the Bulls should ask the necessary questions of the Stormers defensive system.
It is what the Bulls do on defence though that could provide the key for whether the Pretoria derby will be a complete preparation for the Stormers. The Bulls defence was all over the place earlier in the season and at stages of the game against the Kings last week, but they placed the Sharks under a lot of pressure at Kings Park. And that is what the Stormers will be hoping for.
It was the line-speed of the New Zealand defensive effort that made the Stormers look most vulnerable when they were overseas. Faced with defenders bearing down on them and closing up space, the Stormers looked a bit shell-shocked with ball in hand. While their own defence undeniably let them down, it was what the opposition were doing when the Stormers had the ball that created the mistakes the Kiwis capitalised on.
The Stormers returned from New Zealand vowing to learn from their mistakes and to get themselves more attuned to what they should be expecting in the play-offs against Kiwi teams, and fortunately for coach Robbie Fleck, most of the team’s they have played against appeared to have learned from what they saw happen to the Stormers on tour.
The Blues have been one New Zealand team that has not really based it’s defensive system around line-speed but when they played the Stormers at Newlands in the second half of May it was something that they’d injected into their game.
They gave the Cape side a thorough examination before capitulating to a combination of losing players to disciplinary infractions and the Stormers forward power in the last quarter.
The Stormers should have drawn a lot of heart from that game, particularly the way that they maintained their own intensity throughout an 80 minutes where the Blues periodically held a substantial lead.
Blues coach Tana Umaga made no attempt to hide his admiration for the Stormers, and described them as relentless. It is rare for a South African team to outlast a Kiwi team, which was what happened on that occasion.
The Stormers let themselves down though by failing to pitch mentally for the following match against the Sharks in Durban. The Sharks coach Robert du Preez spoke a lot in the build-up week about what he had learned from the Stormers’ overseas tour, and it was no surprise that the Sharks pressed hard on defence in that game. The Stormers didn't cope, but then they also just didn't look like they were up for the battle from the start.
Then came the Cheetahs, who of course although weak on defence did make a noticeable effort during their tour of New Zealand to inject line-speed into their defence. They are unable to sustain it for long periods, but they did test the Stormers enough to satisfy Fleck, although he wasn't completely happy with how his players coped.
He wasn't happy last week either, but at least the Sunwolves, who have always worked hard on line-speed, were back at full strength and subjected his players to some sort of test, which wasn't the case when an understrength Sunwolves team played the Lions the week before.
“The penny does appear to have dropped and most teams have brought line-speed into their game,” agreed Fleck recently.
“We are expecting that from the Bulls, who appeared to get it right from the Sharks. We’ve heard that Mitch (new coach John Mitchell), although not involved yet, has sent them the message that it is something they need to start doing.”
The Stormers have been working hard on their own defensive game, but it has not always been as good as the promise shown in the second half of the win over the Blues. They looked particularly vulnerable against the Cheetahs, but then recovered in the last 20 minutes, when they were the best they have been defensively all season and looked nigh impregnable.
The problem earlier in that game, as Fleck explained, was that the Stormers weren’t helped by yellow cards. A press defensive system is hard to apply when all players are not on the field.
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