The Stormers are now just three points ahead of the Bulls in Africa Conference 1. But even though the pressure is on, coach Robbie Fleck says that his team won’t deviate from their attacking style at Loftus on Saturday.
Fleck bemoaned the fact that his team played “too much rugby” in the first half of last weekend’s 17-17 draw against the Sunwolves in Singapore. He was referring to the countless handling errors made by the Cape side as they tried to run the Japanese team off their feet by offloading in the tackle and keeping the ball alive.
That is what they have been striving to do under Fleck this season, so it was rather the execution than the plan itself that was the problem. Perhaps it was the manner in which the Stormers salvaged two log points with a thrilling touchdown in the last minute that made Fleck realise – having thought about it for another two days – that in fact holding on to the ball is still the best way to outwork defences.
Halfbacks Louis Schreuder and Jean-Luc du Plessis could also have tried to chip into the space behind the Sunwolves’ rush defence more often for a bit of variety, but the entire Stormers backline was caught behind the advantage line.
It is believed that the humidity in Singapore played a bigger role in the Stormers’ lethargic display than they are willing to admit, and it is hoped that they will find the urgency displayed against the Waratahs recently in Pretoria on Saturday.
Fleck again enthused about how his team showed “discipline” when Vincent Koch created a breakdown turnover 10 metres from his own line, and the Stormers took the ball all the way into the Sunwolves’ 22, with Koch rounding off a brilliant passage of play.
That is what they are capable of at their best, and it is what Fleck wants to see on what is likely to be a dry night on the highveld on Saturday. Having lost to the Waratahs and drawn with the Sunwolves, though, they are desperate for a win against a Bulls team that also surrendered against the Brumbies and Waratahs in the last fortnight.
“They’ve certainly improved since they played us at Newlands. They’re a young side who are trying things and playing a different brand of rugby, and it’s quite clear to see that they are trying to embrace more ball-in-hand,” Fleck said.
“But with that comes stumbling blocks, and they certainly found that in their last two games. But they’ve shown enough in the last couple of weeks and credit to (Bulls coach) Nollis Marais and his management for continuing on the path they set out in the beginning.
“It is not always easy to keep going that way with a couple of losses. And we are in a similar sort of position – we’re a young side who are trying things differently. We are not always going to get it right and have our hiccups along the way, but I think the young players have shown enough.”
Fleck cited the example of fullback Cheslin Kolbe, who played a key role in Koch’s try when he broke through from the scrumhalf position near the halfway line and almost went all the way, as someone who has the licence to attack as he sees fit.
“I think he has become more involved (on attack), to be honest. There were question marks around his kicking game in the past, and he has improved on that. He gets up for the high ball, he’s as brave as anything. Yes, defensively he may get bumped off once or twice, but he has one of the top tackle counts in our side and he doesn’t miss too many,” the coach said.
“On attack, he is there. He is getting involved at first and second receiver and doing a lot for the side. He has been very consistent this year and playing good rugby. At fullback, he’s got free rein to pop in at anywhere he wants to on the field. That’s the beauty of the 15 – they are usually your best footballers in the side and have the ability to pop up anywhere. The freedom that he’s got to play suits his game.”
Meanwhile, Bulls coach Nollis Marais has made four changes to his starting XV for the Stormers game. Travis Ismaiel is back at left wing, while Francois Brummer gets another opportunity at flyhalf in place of Tian Schoeman.
Rudy Paige makes way for Piet van Zyl at scrumhalf, while Arno Botha is at No 8 for Hanro Liebenberg.
In addition, the Bulls announced on Wednesday that Springbok flank Jacques Potgieter has signed a two-year deal with the Pretoria-based union and has left the Sharks with immediate effect.
Potgieter, who picked up the nickname “Jacpot” in Australia due to the impact he made at the Waratahs over the last few years, has been sidelined by an ankle injury that prevented him from turning out for the Sharks this season. He is set to return to action in two weeks’ time.
Southern Kings tighthead prop Jacobie Adriaanse will also be joining the Bulls at the end of Super Rugby.
15 SP Marais, 14 Jamba Ulengo, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Travis Ismaiel, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Bench: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Pierre Schoeman, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Deon Stegmann, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Dries Swanepoel.