Cape Town will see clash of defensive wits that know each other well

rugby24 April 2024 08:12| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Stormers © Gallo Images

It is hard to imagine that Norman Laker would be good at Poker. The DHL Stormers defence coach is easy to read, and the dejection that was on his face when he shook his head in frustration straight after his team’s loss to Ospreys was still there three days later.

Laker made no attempt to hide his disappointment when he faced the Cape media in an online press conference on Tuesday. And he was disappointed for a good reason - he has too much money in his pocket. Money he will feel should be spent on doughnuts.

Laker’s quirky incentive for the Stormers players, whereby he buys all of them doughnuts if they keep their opponents to rugby’s equivalent of football's clean sheet, is well known. But it is hard to recall when last he’s had to dip into his pockets. Neither in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship or the Investec Champions Cup have the Stormers managed to prevent their opponents from crossing the chalk this season.

Indeed, there have been many occasions when it has felt like the opposition are too easily able to convert visits into the Stormers 22 - most of the first half of the recent URC clash with Ulster being a notable exception - but there was something else that bothered Laker about the performance against the Ospreys. There was a lack of intensity, something he felt he hadn't seen from the Cape team in two years.


“Conceding four tries is a bitter pill to swallow,” said Laker when reflecting back on the missed opportunity to stay within touching distance of the top four on the URC log.

“One thing we have spoken quite a bit about since the game was our intensity on defence. We are normally so well organised when coming up but this time we came up in dribs and drabs. There was definitely something lacking. In this competition, you can’t underestimate anyone. I think it was at the start of last season that Zebre nearly beat Leinster. The final score was 31-29.

“I am not saying we underestimated the Ospreys, but our intensity definitely wasn’t the same as in previous games and we paid for it.”

You’d think it could be a consolation for Laker that Leinster, the Stormers’ opponents at the DHL Stadium on Saturday night, also had an off day defensively at the weekend. They conceded six tries in their surprisingly one-sided defeat to the Emirates Lions and like the Stormers, looked lethargic and off the pace early on.

However, Laker isn’t drawing any consolation from the Leinster loss. He believes that the big defeat will just make the visitors more dangerous. Just like Stormers will be looking to respond from the chastening experience of the previous weekend, so will Leinster.

“Leinster are a quality outfit. I know Jacques (Nienaber) well, they will be very competitive on Saturday. They will be stung by the loss to the Lions and looking to bounce back, as will we.”


Laker’s relationship with Springbok World Cup winning coach Nienaber, who is now the senior assistant coach to Leo Cullen at Leinster, extends back many years. The pair have worked with each other rather than against each other mostly, so Saturday’s will be a new experience for Laker.

Although it is understood Nienaber has flown back to Dublin to help prepare the team that will contest the following weekend’s Champions Cup semifinal, it will be a case of Laker’s defensive system up against Nienaber’s. And that means there isn’t really that much difference, with Laker having noted the changes that have been made at Leinster since Nienaber has been involved.

“The Leinster defence was always passive, they never came up. They are doing that now, you can definitely see Jacque’s influence there. It is new to them and occasionally they have a problem with connection, and they lost to Ulster because Ulster were good at kicking behind their advancing defence.”


The Ospreys made life difficult for the Stormers with their advancing defence in their 27-21 win so maybe that doesn’t bode well for the Stormers getting their attacking game right at the weekend, but at least the Leinster system is one that Laker and the Stormers should be familiar with.

“Jacques and I have come a long way together. I first met him at the end of 2007 when he and Rassie (Erasmus) came down to take over at the Stormers,” recalls Laker.

“I was at that stage at the Western Province Rugby Institute, and then later I started coaching the under-21s at the union and then the Vodacom Cup team. Jacques was still very much involved with the Stormers then so I learned a lot from him.

“Then in 2014 we worked together with the South Africa under-20 team. He left for Munster and I took over as defence coach at the Stormers in 2016. When he came back to coach the Boks he had evolved from coaching a quite passive system into a massive rush system. Back then, I was working on line speed with the WP juniors and the Currie Cup side.

“We mixed and matched our ideas. I took some things from him and he took some things from me. We got to a nice system that benefitted both us at the Stormers and him at the Boks because obviously at that stage, a lot of the Stormers players were Boks. Guys like Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya and Damian de Allende were all playing for us.

"So there were quite a few guys common to both us and the Boks so I thought it would be stupid to try and go your own way if you have those players for six months and then the Boks have them for the other six months.”