Cape Town - Whatever happened to that oft-stated desire by the bosses at Newlands for the Stormers to recapture a “Western Province rugby” sort of attacking ethic?
It only seems to remain a pipe dream; all big talk.
Never mind months, it has been many years since the Western Cape outfit produced the kind of crowd-pleasing, expressive and skill-laden fare that would all but fill the time-honoured stadium - including at domestic Currie Cup level - on a consistent basis.
Saturday was just another extremely costly, deeply frustrating modern instance where the Stormers, in front of an unremarkable long-weekend crowd, did so much of the groundwork (or read: murderous forward endeavour, for the most part) to tee up a much-needed victory against the Brumbies.
Instead they slipped to a costly 19-17 Super Rugby setback against the similarly mid-table side, despite governing two thirds of the territory and possession, and their offensive game proving all too sterile, uncertain and lacking in cohesion.
It was a swift, sobering correction after their Australasian tour drought-breaking triumph over the Rebels last weekend, also meaning that they are rooted to the foot of the SA conference instead of soaring to second, which would have been the case with the right result against the grimly-motivated, heroic-defending visitors from Canberra.
The fairly scant consolation for Robbie Fleck’s charges is that the group only appears to get more claustrophobic by the week: only four points now separate top (Bulls) from bottom.
We will also see the cat even more engulfed by pigeons should the Stormers bounce back – and who’s to say they won’t, considering the bumpy, hard-to-read fortunes that characterise almost all Super Rugby teams this year? - by beating the very Bulls at Newlands next Saturday.
For that to happen, though, the Capetonians may have to do so against mounting odds.
Yes, revenge should be a pretty strong motivator, considering the unpalatable memories down south of the 40-3 thrashing in the first-round encounter at Loftus.
But the Stormers also had to sweat blood in what was almost like an uncompromising Test match against the Brumbies, and that after only returning from Australia a few days previously.
They could really have done with a bye immediately after the four-match tour but now, having huffed and puffed to no avail in their first game back, must brace themselves for an immensely energy-sapping fortnight against the Bulls and Jaguares (in Buenos Aires) respectively before the overdue opportunity of a week off.
In addition, the injury toll in the squad is mounting - they are using what might be branded third-choice personnel in certain berths - and lock is an area where alarm bells will be ringing especially loudly.
Both chosen second-rowers against the Brumbies, Cobus Wiese and Salmaan Moerat, left the field prematurely - after strong shifts - due to concussion-related issues, simply meaning that they join the likes of Eben Etzebeth, JD Schickerling and Chris van Zyl on the present side-lines.
Springbok pack stalwarts like Steven Kitshoff, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Bongi Mbonambi must wonder, too, just what it is they are doing wrong (quick answer: it’s not them) to end up on the losing side several times this season when they have done so much to establish a platform for the altogether happier outcome.
Although forwards naturally play a far from inconsequential role in attacking play, too, the Stormers continue to exhibit a rank inability to get their backline functioning with any semblance of regular crispness and penetration.
It is reflected in the fact that one of their two tries against the Brumbies was an open-to-discussion penalty one, and the other the result of an industrial maul.
The Stormers are the lowest “points for” team in the competition at this point, with 180 posted from nine outings: that is an average of exactly 20 points per game (poor for this often high-scoring tournament) and only they and the Waratahs (192) have not yet gone beyond the 200-mark.
Their thinning of personnel options also comes at a time when next week’s derby foes, by contrast, have started to welcome back key figures like RG Snyman and Warrick Gelant from injury.
The Bulls will also be fresher, having come off their own Easter bye.
SuperSport pundit and most-capped Springbok Victor Matfield also made the point, post-match on Saturday, that if the Stormers were rattled by the Brumbies’ speed off the line, they might find the Bulls even more of a handful in that department.
He also suggested they revisit their flyhalf plans, considering the looming threat of runaway Bok first choice for the visiting cause, Handre Pollard.
“There was nothing on attack for the Stormers … all one-off (runner) stuff. Josh Stander was often too deep (at No 10) and I would like to see Damian Willemse get another chance at flyhalf; he at least goes to the line.”
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Crusaders v Lions, 09:35; Sunwolves v Highlanders, 12:00. Saturday: Hurricanes v Chiefs, 09:35; Waratahs v Sharks, 11:45; Stormers v Bulls, 15:05; Jaguares v Brumbies, 23:40. Byes: Reds, Rebels, Blues.
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