I was pleasantly surprised and much impressed with the Stormers this weekend. The Blues showed just how dangerous they can be against the Bulls last week. They confirmed that for about 10 minutes in the second half when the Stormers got a bit complacent and took the foot of the pedal after establishing a 17 point lead.
That sense of complacency as result of feeling secure with their 17 point lead saw the Stormers deviating from their success formula and they paid for it by getting two tries scored against them in seven minutes. Credit to them for rectifying the neglect and going back to the formula.
The Stormers used a well-established formula to beat NZ but added some new dimensions to the pattern. These new strategies employed by the Stormers countered the typical offensive measures NZ sides have been using over the last couple of years to overcome the proven South African recipe to beat them.
I could see at least five things the Stormers did to establish the win. The first two reasons listed below relate to the well proven recipe used by the Springboks since 1937 to beat New Zealand teams. The last three reasons are however new additions to South African rugby; a product of 15 years of Super rugby.
South African sides have adjusted over the last 15 years of playing super rugby and most teams have started to get the first two aspects (listed below) right since the Bulls had re-established the confidence in the basics namely in solid and well organised scrummaging and line-out play.
The importance of the last three reasons I’ve listed below has always sort of eluded South African sides and has been a consisted problem when South African teams play against New Zealand sides since our re-admittance to the international fold. These three aspects is something South African teams sometimes got right but rarely in combo with the first three aspects listed. Plumtree and Mitchell I believe have much to do with our improvement with regard to the last three aspects I’ve listed below. What was so revealing for me in this match was the fact that we now have a team not coached by a New Zealander that is starting to get it right. To be fair the Stormers have shown steady improvement with regard to the last three aspects listed over the last two years under the tutelage of Alistair Coetzee. The way the Stormers have got all five things listed below right against top quality New Zealand opposition was in particular heart-warming for me.
Here are the five factors I believe the Stormers got right against the Blues.
- Dominance in the scrums
Set piece dominance is key if you want to beat New Zealand sides. There was a tendency in South Africa up to almost 2007 to neglect the scrums. A consequence of either naïve believes that our scrums are good enough or considering it not important in the modern game. The Stormers in particular have neglected this part of their game for a considerable period. This was for me as a WP supporter probably the most frustrating part of Stormers rugby over the last 10 years.
The way Brok Harris and Kitshoff dominated the scrum was therefore a pleasant surprise and something I thoroughly enjoyed. Late in the second half –after the Blues scored two quick tries- the Stormres turned the tide with four fantastic scrums in which they not only pushed the Blues backward but more importantly dominated to the extent that they created turnover ball. This dominance in the scrums prevented the Blues from getting into the game and contributed much to the second point listed here (Stormers being able to pressurise the halfbacks) as well as the third point (winning the breakdown battle).
- Pressure on halfbacks
Jake White’s early success against the Al Blacks had much to do with his rush-up defence. New Zealand rugby is all about punching holes in the midfield and playmaking in the midfield. Quick flat ball with forwards charging into channels 1, 2 and 3 is how they create recycle ball behind the defensive line. To prevent his you need to give the half back (scrum half) back foot-ball and rush-up to numbers 10 and 12. When you see the New Zealand inside backs throwing pop passes and knocking passes then you know the pressure is getting to them. Such pressure normally derails their offensive game tactics and result in them making mistakes behind the advantage line.
The Stormers were very successful in putting pressure on the halfbacks of the blues to the extent that last weekend hero Anscombe at 10 had a match he would like to forget. This pressure on the Blues halfbacks was persistent throughout the match and it was interesting to note how quickly the Blues were able to score when the Stormers stopped exerting that pressure on the halfback for that 7 minutes in the second half.
- Winning the battle at the breakdowns
Very impressive was also the Stormers dominance of the breakdowns. They rushed-up in defence were aggressive at the tackles making sure they forced the Blues back at each tackle. There were occasions where they actually reclaimed the ball by counter rucking on counter rucks. The props and locks worked particularly hard in this regard and much of the credit for the victory at the breakdowns must go to the tight forwards.
- Solid midfield defence and rucking by the centres
There was however in my opinion another surprising factor that emerged from this match and which played a major role in the Stormers winning the battle at the breakdowns in the midfield and that was the rucking work of the two centres (de Villiers and De Jongh).
The two Stormers centres did not only tackle well by more importantly they were aggressive at the rucks that formed in the midfield. This culminated in Nonu actually starting to kick the ball in an attempt to avoid them.
- Snubbing the stab through attacking option
One of the strategies the 1956 All Blacks developed against the loose hanging South African loose forwards was the stab through kick and the up and under. This was New Zealand’s answer to prevent the ball from going to ground behind their forwards. The box kick, up and under and stab through rolling kick by the No9 and No10 was implemented to prevent Lochner, Ackermann and Retief from breaking through on No10 and 12. Fundamentally, the All Blacks did not attempt to pass first phase ball but created instead a second phase or ruck behind the advantage line or more specifically behind the Springbok backline. They won those breakdowns comprehensively because the South African backline players did not participate in the rucks and neither did the loose hanging loose forwards.
Recently the All Blacks went back to this strategy to counter the South African rush-up defence as well as the flat lying defensive lines of the modern game. Stats of tri-nation test matches played over the last two years indicate that New Zealand halfbacks have used the stab through kick quite frequently and video material will show that they scored quite a number of tries against South Africa using this tactic.
The Reds also used this tactic with success against the Crusaders in last year’s S15 final.
The Stormers snubbed this tactic effectively by doing at least three things really well. Firstly, the wings were ready for it and doubled back to poach the ball. Secondly, the wings then either cleared the ball with long passes away from the point of contact or took the ball with speed and aggression into contact. Thirdly, the speedy support of the loose forwards and the other backline players -at those rucks which the wings would set-up once they poached the ball- was instrumental in snubbing the kick through offensive tactic of the blues. The help and aggression at those rucks demonstrated a certain team awareness of the importance of winning the rucks behind the advantage line. It also demonstrate the improved rucking ability of South African backs.
Lastly the Stormers made sure they played the game in the Blues half of the field.
This was for me an outstanding win because it was the first time that I saw a South African team putting all these factors together in the same game.