Super Rugby

Stormers-Bulls: Steyn factor puts Willemse’s kicking in spotlight

Cape Town – South African derbies: seldom the five-tries-plays-four spectacles that are reasonably commonplace in NZ conference tussles in Super Rugby.

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No, they tend to be massively more attrition-based, bruising and sometimes downright ugly, often made “memorable” only by the degree of closeness on the (less busy, mind) scoreboard.

Don’t expect too great a departure from the trend when the Stormers entertain the Bulls at Newlands on Saturday, 17:15 kick-off.

We have already seen pretty solid evidence from round one that the Capetonians will try to maximise their formidable pack strength – both at set-piece and in general exchanges – as a key route toward victory, while the Bulls should stick to their often conservative game plan, hoping for a fiery forward effort of their own to enable scope for getting in range to “take points when on offer”.

Or alternatively read: not be shy at all to aim repeated penalty shots at the posts, considering the traditionally dead-eye accuracy of their ageing points machine at flyhalf, Morne Steyn.

All this raises the question - even as the Stormers seem set be to labelled as firm favourites considering their thumping of the Hurricanes last weekend - of whether success percentage from the tee may prove influential to the outcome in this one.

Even the most diehard of home-town fans, you’d think, would be prepared to concede under that scenario that Steyn would hold the reputational aces (throw in the tactical-kicking aspect for good measure?) over his considerably younger Stormers pivot rival Damian Willemse.

The latter’s game, after all, is characterised much more at this stage by his silky range of ball-in-hand attributes; with the 35-year-old Steyn it is much more about “what you see is what you get” even if he is not averse to sudden bouts of adventurism himself.

But if Saturday does come down to proficiency at the sticks between Steyn and Willemse, there will be stronger pressure on the Stormers man to lift his game accordingly than there will be on his metronomic opposite number.

One aspect that crept a little under the radar, perhaps, to some onlookers in the Stormers v Hurricanes tussle last weekend was Willemse’s quite frequently evident lack of conviction and rhythm in his place-kicking.

He missed three attempts at the posts – one penalty and two conversions – for a humdrum success rate on the day of 50 percent, although it wasn’t a train smash in bigger-picture terms considering the impressive, complete shut-out the Stormers managed to the normally free-spirited Hurricanes’ own scoring plans in the 27-0 result.

If the game against the time-honoured arch-rivals from the north is rather more dingdong in nature, then it may be essential that Willemse buck up his accuracy in that department.

Remember that the Stormers no longer have the luxury of another recognised place-kicker in their XV, as fullback-cum-wing SP Marais has left the franchise and is now on the books of Canon Eagles in Japan – it puts the onus more squarely on Willemse to deliver the goods.

In what many will interpret as a significant move, coach John Dobson has restored another flyhalf familiar enough with place-kicking chores, Jean-Luc du Plessis, to the Stormers’ bench on Saturday, despite still going for a forward-heavy 6-2 split in resources there.

Widely-travelled Springbok Steyn tends to kick highly reliably at the posts regardless of the venue or conditions, and has a history of producing the goods when it really matters at Newlands: cast your mind back to the Bok-laden Currie Cup semi-final between Western Province and the Blue Bulls in now-distant 2009.

Underdogs at the time against a Bulls side filled with RWC 2007-winning rugby galacticos, Province had seemed set for a memorable victory until Fijian wing Sireli Naqelevuki’s 77th-minute blemish led to Steyn having a long, challengingly-angled penalty crack to determine the gripping contest – he nailed it brilliantly for a 7/7 personal record at the posts and sealing of a 21-19 result.

Still, it is not as though the Stormers should be trembling too noticeably in their boots about the possibility of a “siege-gun Steyn” on Saturday: they are sure to do their level best in a territorial context to keep him out of range, and Willemse’s brand of trickery on the front foot can play a valuable role in ensuring that.

Besides, there is also the ongoing debate – although it is early days in the 2020 season specifically - about whether the Bulls are just too reliant at times on points from the tee.

Last Friday’s first-round derby defeat to the Sharks in Durban, for instance, saw them put up stern enough opposition for long periods ahead of the 23-15 defeat, but a tactical error, arguably, some four minutes from time cost them quite dearly.

The Sharks were a more tenuous 16-12 up at the time, and instead of going for the corner to try to force a potentially winning try from a lineout rumble, the Bulls elected for the unerring Steyn to goal his fourth penalty instead (he had already landed a dropped goal as well).

While successful (narrowing things to 16-15) it meant that play would inevitably be transferred back into the Bulls’ half from the kick-off, with time fast running out … that was all the insurance the hosts needed, and they even rubbed salt into the visitors’ wounds through Sanele Nohamba’s last-ditch try to cruelly strip away even a losing bonus point for the side from Pretoria.

Subsequently, various SuperSport chat show pundits like Nick Mallett, Swys de Bruin and a Loftus legend in Victor Matfield have all highlighted what they perceived as the Bulls’ folly in opting for that Steyn pot-shot …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing