24 March 2020, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

State of the Franchises: Stormers

In part three of our series on the state of South African Super Rugby sides at the unprecedented suspension of the tournament after the seventh round due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Quintin van Jaarsveld takes an in-depth look at the Stormers.

“We are not the Stormers we were at the start of the season.” Those words from a rather stunned John Dobson to SuperSport last week sums up the state the Stormers find themselves in.

Capetonians are cursed

The Cape Town collective are cursed. Long before the coronavirus reached South Africa, a different crisis rocked the Mother City’s rugby pride. An injury plague, the level of which is unprecedented in recent memory, ravaged the Stormers squad, leaving a raft of broken bodies behind.

The victims? Mostly celebrated World Cup winners. It’s as if the ghost of England rugby’s past, fuelled by vengeful vitriol for THAT mauling by the men in Green in Gold in last year’s final, is picking off Springbok heroes one by one. Skipper Siya Kolisi, hooker Bongi Mbonambi, star loose forward Pieter-Steph du Toit, scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies and prop Steven Kitshoff – all have been struck down (in that order)…with increasing cruelty.

These national treasures will all spend months, not weeks, on the sideline to recover from their respective injuries. It’s the eerie nature of their injuries that suggests the Stormers are jinxed. As Dobson put it, “These are all deeply traumatic injuries, nothing to do with [work] load. It is something you can’t explain. It is freakish because it is not a conditioning issue. You saw Siya’s tackle, how Bongi’s leg got bent back at a ruck, Herschel fractures a fibula…it’s terrible.” Hardly ideal for a mentor in his maiden Super Rugby season.

The most serious of all was the freakish circumstances that, according to team doctor Jason Suter, almost saw Du Toit’s leg being amputated. Compounding the disappointment of the season’s first defeat, a shock 33-14 loss at home to the unheralded Blues in Round Five, was the fact that the World Rugby Player of the Year limped off and was rushed to undergo emergency surgery.

Had it not been for the medical staff’s swift action, Du Toit – at the height of his career – would’ve lost his leg and with it, his identity as a superstar of the sport. “Pieter-Steph sustained a haematoma that developed into acute compartment syndrome,” Suter explained.

“It is a very rare condition. There are in fact only 43 cases listed in the literature. It is a medical emergency because if you don’t pick it up immediately the player loses blood supply to the leg and loses the leg. So within 15 minutes of him coming off the field and us assessing him, we realised he was at risk because of his condition.”

Curse confirmed.

Passing the torch

That the casualties are all foundation players of the franchise made it impossible for the Stormers to sustain their impressive run of four consecutive wins that jump-started their season. It’s also drastically reduced their chances of claiming a first-ever Super Rugby title (should the tournament resume), a dream many tipped them to realise this year given the depth of their star-studded squad and momentum they’d been set to gain from their world-beating Boks.

The 24-14 loss to the Sharks, which came off the back of the Blues defeat, appeared to be the passing of the torch, with the high-flying Durban side now set to spearhead the South African surge. All hope is not lost, but it’ll take a special collective effort from the fractured group to regain the top billing they enjoyed in the local division in the opening rounds and the crucial home play-off that comes with it.

The back-to-back defeats before the lockout see the Stormers lie second in the South African Conference on 17 points, the same as the third-placed Jaguares, but with a game in hand. They’re seven points behind the log-leading Durbanites and seventh overall.

The Willemse conundrum

Injuries aren’t solely to blame for the Stormers’ recent regression. The attacking blues that have hampered the franchise in recent years remain. There’s plenty of horsepower under the hood, but, unfortunately, the gearbox problems persist. They’re still stuck in first gear.

The impact of Damian Willemse’s much-anticipated move from fullback to flyhalf resembled sparklers more so than fireworks, sadly. One of the rare World Cup-winning Springboks who’s sidestepped the injury curse, the uber-talented Willemse stuttered in the driving seat before being switched back to No. 15 against the Sharks.

It would be unjust to call the promise-filled experiment a flop. The 21-year-old pivot produced pockets of piercing plays, both when attacking the line and in a playmaking capacity, but at this early stage, he lacks generalship that comes from confidence born out of experience at 10.

Game management is a gift. However, like all things, it needs to be continually developed. South African rugby has many magnificent qualities. Patience is not one of them. With franchises more aligned with the national body than ever, where does the director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and new head coach Jacques Nienaber see Willemse’s long-term future?

How much time will they, and Dobson, give Willemse to find his feet at flyhalf? A young Quade Cooper stumbled and bumbled when he first broke onto the scene and went on to become one of the best in the world. How much rope will the similarly-skilled Willemse receive?

Based on this year’s limited evidence, Willemse does look best-suited at fullback. He came alive in the coastal derby back at fullback; he had his swagger back, dancing past four would-be defenders, but with Jean-Luc du Plessis going down in that game after having started at pivot, Willemse will probably alternate between the two roles.

The Stormers rank 10th having scored 16 tries, two more than both the Bulls and Lions but nine fewer than the sizzling Sharks. Their lowly 14th ranking when it comes to carries (519) highlights their defence-mindedness. The rest of the key attacking stats, meanwhile, reveal the bluntness of attack, with the Capetonians lying 14th in metres made (2,013), 12th in clean breaks (51) and last (along with the Highlanders) when it comes to beating defenders (96).

Over-reliance on defence

They’re hamstrung by an over-reliance on brute force and defence. Tactically, they’ve taken a page out of the Springboks’ book. With so many Green and Gold giants in the pack and Jantjies at 9, why wouldn’t they? The issue is, it’s almost impossible to sustain such a physically-demanding style for a marathon 18-week season. Seven weeks, the time it took South Africa to pull off their third and arguably most taxing World Cup triumph last year, is hard enough.

The majority of the injuries they’ve suffered, as Dobson pointed out in the aforementioned quote, weren’t workload related, but the toll their tackle-first tactics take is already evident. The Cape side deserves all the credit in the world for the defensive masterclasses they put on to shutout out the Hurricanes and Bulls back-to-back in the first two weeks.

They also restricted the Jaguares, albeit an understrength version, to just seven points, and while the defensive structure remains intact, it is unravelling, evidenced by the severe drop in their tackle success rate – to 82.3% – which puts them 12th, below, among others, the battling Bulls (11th on 82.8%).

The suspension provides a welcome window for much-needed respite and recuperation. It could allow for a comeback or two and if matches are reduced, it’ll lessen the impact of the physically-demanding gameplan on the players, although it would also complicate chasing down the pace-setting Sharks. It’s a catch 22.

The cursed Capetonians can do with a lucky break and that could turn out to be the fact that their Australasian tour is scheduled for the tail-end of their season. At this stage, chances are slim to nought that the travel ban will be lifted anytime soon, which would spare the Stormers the toughest part of the tournament.

It would also, though, rob them of star signing Jamie Roberts, as the Welsh import must return to the United Kingdom before the end of April to renew his work visa.

As it stands

Log positions:

Seventh overall
Second in South African Conference

Results:

Beat Hurricanes 27-0
Beat Bulls 13-0
Beat Lions 33-30
Beat Jaguares 17-7
Lost 33-14 to Blues
Lost 24-14 to Sharks

Remaining fixtures:

March 21: Jaguares (a)
March 28: Melbourne Rebels (h)
April 4: Waratahs (h)
April 18: Sharks (h)
April 25: Chiefs (a)
May 2: Crusaders (a)
May 9: Brumbies (a)
May 16: Sunwolves (a)
May 23: Lions (h)
May 30: Bulls (a)

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