Rugby Union

License article

All eyes on the Stormers but underdog status gives Waratahs a chance

Show comments

What the Waratahs wouldn't give for a little of the pressure the Stormers are experiencing. The Cape Town side is perched loftily in the table, has the best defensive record in the competition and entertains a home final as a realistic ambition.

NSW are struggling with a deficit of confidence, unco-operative hamstrings bother two of their heavyweights and a lack of flattery is emerging from some commentators. For good measure, a former coaching target has reappeared on the market at a bad time for the incumbent.

Yet the Stormers have had to field inquiries this week about their lack of attacking menace following a rugged but uninspiring win at home over the Cheetahs. The Stormers average of 1.7 tries a game is the second-lowest in the competition. They are yet to grab a four-try bonus point and the influence of backs coach Robbie Fleck has been questioned. It is not just Sydney that is hard to please.

However, there was one incident in the Stormers-Cheetahs match that summed up the arduous task in front of Michael Foley's men.

In the 54th minute, from an attacking lineout, the Cheetahs' Heinrich Brussow swept down the blindside and popped up a delayed pass to halfback Piet van Zyl.

Springboks winger Bryan Habana, watching from the left wing, moved forward and rearranged van Zyl's ribcage with a huge, driving tackle. When the Stormers commit in defence, they do so with some intent. It has been their season's foundation.


Pugnacious types such as front-rower Brok Harris and hooker Tiaan Liebenberg might not be waiting for national call-ups, but their aggressive approach sets the tone for Andries Bekker, Eben Etzebeth and Rynhardt Elstadt, while emerging star Siya Kolisi has caught the eye with his athletic carries and workrate from openside. It has, in part, compensated for the heavy blows of losing Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen. Watch out, too, for the heavy charges of outstanding young loose-head prop Steven Kitshoff. The next generation of South African forwards is in good shape.

Yet, if individuals are to be singled out in terms of influence, fullback Joe Pietersen merits the most attention. Comparisons with Waratahs No.15 Bernard Foley are hard to avoid. Both are relatively lightweight, about 85 kilos, but they have something else in common. The man who deals most impressively with two key roles - taking the high ball and sparking a counter-attack - will have a greater influence on the result than the giants around them.

Pietersen's fleet-footedness produced the best try of the season so far, a brilliant effort against the Highlanders in week seven, but it also serves a less obvious purpose. Sweeping at the rear of the aggressive wall of the Stormers' defenders, Pietersen's pace and positional awareness allows him to patrol the acreage they leave in behind them. Imprecise kicks are punished by the fullback, who is brave under the bomb and kicks well. Still, there is space to be found.

For the visitors, attention will focus on whether Foley the player can benefit from the second outing of a 10-12-13 combination that is preferable to the alternatives tried earlier. Flashes of promise were seen in parts of the Brumbies and Bulls games without any hint that the complete back-line package was imminent, but progress of sorts was being made.

At least Berrick Barnes is moving forward when he picks his options but service to the five-eighth remains a problem, in the shape of passes provided by Brendan McKibbin and the quality of ball dished up to the halfback. The Stormers are not a turnover team - they have the lowest ruck and maul steals in the competition - but they can slow the ball down by committing numbers to the tackle and shoving the ball carrier into reverse.

With the characteristics of both sides, it is easy to predict a dull encounter decided by multiples of three. The kick-off is in the evening and the forecast is for rain. But this competition has proven adept at making a fool of the clairvoyant.

Do not underestimate the Stormers' need to build other layers on their game as they ponder whether their style is sufficient to deliver a title. For the Waratahs, the encouragement to attack comes from another source: there is a lesser burden on the side that is expected to lose. The script on this one is more complex than it seems.

Twitter - @whiskeycully