Super Rugby

Stormers should empower Willemse for spark

Cape Town – The impotence of their backline play is currently a glaring impediment to the Stormers being deemed knockout-phase material in this year’s Super Rugby.

Heard that one before?

It was, of course, also a hallmark of generous periods of Allister Coetzee’s tenure as head coach between 2010 and 2015, the only difference being that they were often SA conference masters, had a famously adhesive defence and won roughly two-thirds of all matches he presided over for them.

But the pattern is re-emerging to a worrying extent in 2019 … or at least as far as being try-shy in concerned.

Currently sixth on the overall table with three wins from five starts (so at the races for finals-series status), the Stormers were, however, probably deprived of a courageous triumph over the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday because their backs failed by a considerable distance to match the front-foot capabilities achieved by their keen, grunt-laden pack.

They were eventually beaten 34-28 although they did bank a losing bonus point – scant reward for the yeoman industry of men like Pieter-Steph du Toit, Bongi Mbonambi and company.

Competition statistics after round six show that the Stormers are the only team in the entire competition with a single-figure “tries for” count at this stage: nine.

Next worst are compatriots the Bulls (11), while the ease with which certain other teams are crossing the whitewash is reflected in the Crusaders and Lions sharing the honours at the top with 25 each, albeit both from an extra match over the Capetonians.

In another blast from the fairly recent past, if you like, the Stormers are at least lying joint second-best with the Waratahs when it comes to fewest tries conceded: 13.

The Sharks are presently doing easily the most sterling shut-out job of all teams, with only eight concessions.

Still, it seems pretty clear that the Newlands-based side, whose next tour date is against the Blues in Auckland this Saturday (08:35 SA time) will have to try to engineer better thrust from their back division if they are to be treated seriously enough as potential title aspirants this year.

It is just as sobering a stat that only two of their nine tries have been scored by outside backs – one by centre Dan du Plessis against the Jaguares at Newlands, and an early intercept by Damian Willemse when he was starting fullback against the Sharks in Durban.

Three have gone to scrumhalves (two to Herschel Jantjies, one to reserve Justin Phillips) and the other four all rumbled over the line by pack members: like a couple of other SA sides, the Stormers have a noticeable trump card in their rolling maul off the attacking lineout.

The fact that they had to make a near-hellish number of tackles was a reflection, though, of their inability or lack of confidence to keep ball in hand: there was far too much wasted kicking from them and the wings again caught the proverbial colds as far as attacking opportunities were concerned.

Robbie Fleck’s charges continue to be bedevilled by the lack of a street-wise game manager at scrumhalf where, for all his raw talent and personal nippiness, Jantjies understandably still has plenty to learn strategically – veteran Jano Vermaak being so often on the crocked list hardly aids their cause in the berth.

But flyhalf looks too fluid, as well, despite a run of several matches on the trot for fit-again Jean-Luc du Plessis; he has worn the No 10 jersey since the second match, following the disastrous opening-game 40-3 defeat to the Bulls at Loftus where Willemse – the starting pivot that day -- appeared to have been made a prime scapegoat.

Du Plessis, though, has come off some two years of painstaking injury rehab, is also not helped at all by the recently-confirmed serious illness to his legendary father Carel, and has generally looked well off the sort of levels he was capable of before his string of mishaps.

If they are to show a greater sense of backline X-factor against the Blues, it might not be the worst idea to reinstate the hot-stepping, mercurial – but also suitably direct at times -- Willemse to flyhalf.

Yes, the versatile 20-year-old made some gaffes of his own against the Hurricanes after coming on as a substitute, but a show of confidence in him in one spot (and ideally his beloved No 10?) for a few matches might be just the tonic for the Stormers to show more penetration behind the boiler room.

Another Plan B option for the berth, if it is decided to pull out Du Plessis this weekend, would be Josh Stander, who is on tour in the broader party and played some crisp matches at ten during last season’s Currie Cup for Western Province.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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