URC Talking Point: Stop aping Glenn Maxwell and Stormers will be okay
DHL Stormers coach John Dobson is using the term ‘Hail Mary’ a lot in post-match press conferences lately. That’s because the long speculative pass, or 50/50 gamble decision, if you even want to call it a decision for sometimes it just seems instinctive, is being employed a lot by his team.
By his own admission the Stormers are in a very different space after four Vodacom United Rugby Championship tour defeats than they were when they racked up two bonus point wins under the sunny skies and firm, grassy surfaces of Emirates Airlines Park and the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch.
Yet the narrative of the post-match conference after the big win over Scarlets, where the Stormers ran riot but could have won by more if it weren’t for their Harlem Globetrotters, exhibition style approach to the game, has endured.
When it was suggested then that there was a nonchalance to the Stormers approach, it was meant with a sense of admiration. I’d actually written in my match report that the full box of tricks that Warrick Gelant at fullback had displayed to the Stellenbosch crowd was worth the price of admission.
Dobson though was adamant there was too much nonchalance, and while he doesn’t often mention or blame individual players, he said Gelant was in one of those moods where he was “too eager to express himself”.
SELECTION COULD BRING CHANGE
A few times on tour Dobson said he wouldn’t mention names or blame one person, but it was clear he was pointing at Gelant when at the most recent conference, after the loss to Cardiff, he agreed with a questioner who suggested he might have to act on his unhappiness at the prevalence of ‘Hail Mary’s’ by making changes to the team.
To which he reminded his audience that Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse are back in the mix from their World Cup duties this week, and that flyhalf and fullback have been problem areas for him. Willemse plays fullback for the Boks, and while there was a reason Dobson worked so hard to get Gelant back from France, he’s clearly thinking of choosing Willemse there.
Willemse can of course also play inside centre, which cues the problem at flyhalf: There wouldn’t be a problem at flyhalf had the influential Dan du Plessis been fit for the first part of this season. Had Du Plessis, who was excellent in the 2022/23 season, been wearing the No 12, we’d probably have seen the precociously talented Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu at his preferred position of flyhalf and not in the midfield.
ROLE PLAYED BY INJURIES SHOULD NOT BE OVERLOOKED
There would have been a more settled look to the Stormers backline then. In the quest to look for reasons why the Stormers have lost four games in a row their bad run of injuries should not be overlooked, for it is pivotal. For the first part of the tour they’d also had to go without Ruhan Nel, who was concussed in the Scarlets game, Cornel Smit was also injured as well as Sulieman Hartzenberg.
It meant Ben Loader, a wing recruited from England in the off-season, had to move to an outside position he wasn’t familiar with. In the Glasgow Warriors game that started the tour for the Stormers, the midfield improved in the second half but in the first there were some costly defensive errors.
When Nel returned to the mix for the game against Benetton it coincided with an injury to Feinberg-Mngomezulu, so the former Blitzbok ended up at 12, where he hadn’t played since 2017. Again, it looked an incongruous combination, and add to that the fact that the man wearing 10 for most of the tour, Jean-Luc du Plessis, is at best the third or fourth choice Stormers flyhalf.
Like the Sharks, a combination of injuries and Bok absentees saw the Stormers denuded of experience, the point being that it wasn’t just the absences of World Cup winners Willemse, Libbok, Deon Fourie and Frans Malherbe being felt, but by the end of the tour a raft of other stalwarts such as Evan Roos, Ben-Jason Dixon, Joseph Dweba, Leolin Zas plus of course Du Plessis and the injured regular captain Salmaan Moerat were out too.
The Cardiff team the Stormers played in their last match on tour had eight Welsh internationals in it. The Stormers had just one in the form of Courtnall Skosan on the wing, and he hasn’t played for the Boks for several years.
Then there’s another player who did not tour who I think is more valuable to the Stormers than maybe they realise: Hacjivah Dayimani. The looseforward stayed home because his partner was giving birth, and perhaps you could argue that the overseas conditions don’t really suit him, but Dyamani for me is as important as Libbok when it comes to attacking X-factor.
Although he is possibly an odd one to mention given the central point I am about to make, which is maybe the Stormers sometimes have too many of that kind of players, meaning the type of player who likes to try things that carry risk.
TRYING TO HIT TOO MANY SIXES
The cricketing analogy of trying to hit sixes too early is perhaps overused, but in the Stormers case it is perhaps apt. In the sense that at times it looks as though they have lost respect for the basics of the game that are so crucial for success. Like protecting your possession and not giving it up.
That was what the All Blacks got wrong when their hegemony in the world game first started to get eroded back in 2018 when the Springboks beat them in Wellington. It will be recalled that the Boks had conceded two scores of 57 points in two of their three matches against the Kiwis before that game. The Boks did have a new coach in that Wellington game, but when the New Zealand flash saw them score early tries to take a handy lead, you could almost sense them thinking they could chase another score of more than 50.
As a consequence of that, they tried to force things and got sloppy. The Boks pounced, feasted off their mistakes, and then themselves took the lead. And that was the last time the All Blacks were ever that dominant against South Africa.
The Stormers, like the All Blacks of that time, are good six hitters, but on tour they were a bit too much like the Australian batsman Glenn Maxwell, who is the best in the world at what he does but has the weakness of not being a player that often changes his approach.
In a Cricket World Cup pool game against Afghanistan, Maxwell produced arguably the best ODI innings of all time when he made a double ton to dig his team out of a position of no hope to win. Initially it looked like it was going to definitely be a losing cause, so he just kept going for the sixes, and they kept coming off.
When he came to the crease though at tight stage of a semifinal against South Africa, what should have been required of him was a more temperate approach. But Maxwell doesn’t know temperate and on a turning pitch he tried too early to launch the ball into the stands and was bowled.
STORMERS OVERPLAYING TOO MUCH
The Stormers are doing that, they are trying to hit the sixes all the time, and they are rushing things and overplaying way too much, which against Cardiff led to the high number of balls lost in contact.
Had just one of those worked out they would have won, which is why I am not too concerned about the Stormers, who anyway after two seasons where they made the URC final are now past being the little team, that their coach once described them as, who are desperate to prove themselves (whether that in fact may be a problem, they aren’t as desperate anymore, is something we can assess in time).
To my mind, and mindful that the Cape franchise does now have equity partners, the next growth spurt of the Stormers, like was the case with the Liverpool team I support in the round ball game as they corrected from a poor 2022/23 campaign, will come in the next contracting window.
Even if the Stormers do have a blip now and end up well short of what they achieved in the previous two URC seasons, they’ve established themselves as consistent contenders and they must just meet the bottom line that Liverpool didn’t last season, namely make sure they qualify for the next Champions Cup, which is the equivalent of soccers’ Champions League.
But if they want to challenge for a top four position and another home playoff fixture in the URC, they are going to have to ensure that their game against Cardiff, where when they found themselves trailing they appeared to lose composure and started to rush the chase to the point where they tried to hit every ball for six, doesn’t become a microcosm for their season as a whole.
They have talent and they have plenty of ability and they aren’t that far behind the top teams on the log and they have a run of home games to look forward to, so if they stop trying to ape Glenn Maxwell, they should be okay